This is a work of fiction. The characters and events described herein are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, whether living or dead (or Ancestors), is a coincidence.
“You’re not listening to me,” the woman told the soldier.
She was right; he did hear her, but he wasn’t listening. The soldier lay staring at the tiny black-and-white TV set before the bed. The newscast was hurried, stunned, as if the Second Coming had happened without warning. The soldier was initially testy enough to shout at the woman to shut up, but in the next few seconds he didn’t care to.
Transfixed by the small screen, he took in the breaking news.
The signals are being received from a point off the plane of our solar system, at a distance twice that to Mars. World-famous astrophysicist Carl Sayers, known for his work to find extraterrestrial intelligence, has gathered with other scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the NASA command-and-monitoring station for deep-space probes, to study the signals.
Professor Sayers could finally give this comment to the CNN just a minute ago...
“We have now established, beyond all reasonable doubt, that this is not a hoax. The TV broadcast comes from an extraterrestrial source, extremely strong and with tremendous bandwidth; that’s why it shows up on so many of the world’s stations. The source is a moving transmission disk, with a diameter of... roughly, a thousand kilometers. And from the way the signal increases in intensity, we have calculated that the disk is approaching the Earth with decreasing speed.
“We now have reason to believe, that the disk is in fact an enormously huge solar sail, made up of very, very thin metal foil, which is slowing down as it moves into an orbit...parallel to that of Mars. It will probably settle in orbit, in the wake of Mars, where it can be shielded from the solar wind — kind of a port in a cosmic mistral, if you like.
“And according to the alien broadcast, a smaller ship will leave the solar sail and orbit the Moon while awaiting our invitation to visit Earth. I cannot express to you the excitement I feel, as do all my colleagues here at the JPL. This is... this is...”
The excited scientist obviously hadn’t slept very well for the last few 24 hours; neither had the soldier. The headaches were still interrupting his nights — despite the booze, the women, and the pills.
The soldier’s head was a little less heavy this morning, and he felt like getting some more sleep — but the news of the alien TV broadcast pestered his brain, not with the dull pain of headache but with the rush of anticipation. He couldn’t remember being this excited since the war.
The woman, next to him on the bed, gave him an impatient push. “What’s the matter, soldier? You want me to go?”
He sighed, rubbing his temples, avoiding her sharp voice and stare. “Yes,” he groaned. “Go. I don’t know you.”
She pulled back strands of black hair from her tanned face and leaned closer to him, her soft hands trying to gently pull his gaze from the TV.
“But we just met,” she said softly into his ear. “I want to get to know you better...”
He turned to face her, and gave her an angry look. No you don’t, he thought, and she let go — as if she had heard his thoughts. Without a word, the woman gathered her clothes and began to dress. From the other side of the half-closed window shutters, the street was teeming and clamoring with human life.
The soldier had not wanted to be part of such life for the last two years. He had been drifting around the Middle East since the war, in permanent early retirement, going nowhere, until this morning when his life got a purpose again. Struck by instant epiphany after the TV news, he now knew that he had to learn everything he could about the aliens. And then, just maybe, get a chance to see them.
And then — he couldn’t picture what next.
Already, mocking his noble intentions, the thirst for booze, pills, whatever, was setting in. When the fully clothed woman closed the door behind her, he watched some more TV.
The strangest feature of the Sirian broadcast is its wondrous clarity and brevity. Even a child can understand it; the smallest satellite disk on a house is sufficient to receive it. Videotape and CD copies of the main message, running ninety minutes long until repeated, must already exist in millions of households all over the world.
The broadcast has been on the air only since yesterday, and already many viewers have asked us: isn’t ninety minutes too much of a coincidence? How come the alien solar-sail wasn’t detected long before? Wouldn’t this and other odd things indicate that the broadcast is a fraud?
At a closer look, there are elements in its narrative structure that seem inspired by 1950’s TV shows and broadcast films. Strange as this may seem, it is not overly strange — since the extraterrestrials claim to have had their sights set on Earth when they picked up and decoded our early wide-band broadcasts. Being more advanced, and encountering their first messages from our emerging technological civilization, they responded in kind... in both NTSC and PAL signals.
Long will future generations of humans watch that historical first broadcast over and over: moving, somewhat jerky black-and-white photographic pictures, accompanied by written, clumsy English subtexts and simple sign language, carrying the Sirians’ intent to mankind. And they will reminisce how with it, the fantastic suddenly became mundane; alien visitors from space became a daily chatting topic, like Iranian missiles or the greenhouse effect...
The pundits were already turning the event into an excuse for endless media navel-gazing. Painstakingly, the soldier got up from bed and stumbled into the shower. Amphibians from space, he thought. Bet they don’t have to take showers. Bet they don’t feel dirty, foul, exhausted all the time.
The soldier cried as he thought so, but he stayed in the shower to escape seeing or feeling the tears on his face.
* * *
A while later, when the sun stood at the zenith, the soldier left his hotel-room and went out into the bustling city. Situated on an island off the coast of the Persian Gulf, this garrison town was something of a freezone in the Arab world.
Here were bars which served alcohol to infidel soldiers — though not as many bars nor infidels for the past few years, since terrorists started putting pressure on Filipino barmaids to cover their legs and arms. He brought a Walkman radio with him, so that he could follow any further news about the Sirians. Resting the small headphones around his neck, he cranked up the volume to hear it over the prayer-calls.
Above the city, the tall, newly-built minarets spread their wailing, two-note message through loudspeakers: ”God is greater... there is no god but God...”
The soldier suppressed a smile of sudden ironic insight. He thought: A call from the sky. Looks like the competition is thickening, God. What will all these people think, they who go on pilgrimage to kiss a rock that fell from space, ages ago? Would they kiss an alien spaceship too?
The soldier wandered into the street-corner café near his hotel. Earlier, the regular Arab customers used to give him hostile looks — after all, he still wore some of his old uniform — but after a few months they had gotten used to the brooding foreigner. This morning, the soldier was almost completely ignored; the men inside were caught up watching the TV set above the counter. Unsurprisingly, they were watching CNN as well.
The soldier overheard bits of the conversation, and though his Arabic was shaky he understood them well:
“They look almost human.”
“They’re amphibians, they say.”
“Imagine. Like a National Geographic team from space!”
“What if they bring disease with them?”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Yes you are. We all are.”
“We’ve got missiles too, don’t we? And the Iranians, and the Israelis too... they could come to good use after all.”
“Let them come. If they try anything...ffchh...boom!”
“Maybe the angels are coming. Inshallah.”
“Angels with — ugh! — arms like snakes! You’re talking nonsense!”
“Monsters. Demons. It’s the end of the world.”
“Aw, shut up!”
“It must be a fraud. The Jews set it up to undermine our faith.”
“The demons are coming from hell, in the guise of angels.”
“Naah, it’s nothing but actors in rubber suits... look, you can almost see the zippers!”
“Ah, like that American show, ‘X-Files’...”
“To hell with ‘X-Files’. This is for real!”
The bravest customer, a suave youngster with leanings toward Western culture and clothing, turned to look at the soldier — as if he alone possessed an understanding the older men lacked. The soldier had sat down in his regular corner at the end of the counter, drinking the strong local coffee, eating late breakfast, watching the TV news.
The young Arab touched the soldier’s sleeve, addressing him with serious intent. With an ill grace, the soldier gave him half a red-eyed look.
“Hey, amrikani. What do you say?” The young man gestured toward the TV screen. “Is this an American bluff?”
The soldier felt vaguely accused by the youngster’s tone of voice, and he didn’t like the dark stares from some of the older customers. He made an averting gesture — couldn’t think clearly. He had nothing in common with these people; he was an alien here. And the land he used to call “home” had become an alien world of artificial people obsessed with health, money, silicon, steroids, and happiness pills.
The soldier couldn’t answer the Arab’s question. He could only think of one thing to say, but aimed at the sky: Take me away from here. Take me anywhere, but away from this planet. Which of course would have sounded stupid. So he looked down at his plate and kept his mouth shut.
One elderly man with a hookah at his table stopped puffing to say: “He’s homesick. Go home to Mars, amrikani!”
Everyone laughed. The soldier nodded toward the joker with a faint smile.
”Home... phone home,” he said in nasal English. Only the young Arab seemed to get the joke; he fell silent, as if he understood its underlying meaning.
The soldier stood up and walked out of the café. He had to struggle uphill now, if he was to get anywhere with his newly found aim in life. First of all, he must avoid just going through the old drinking routine. The urge was there all right, to buy the cheapest illegal liquor and get drunk in the afternoon.
His headache, forgotten for almost half an hour, was returning... he could no longer tell, whether it was withdrawal or the war injury that was the source.
He stood there in the hot, dusty street, people jostling by, fingering his forehead, fighting the old numb thirst for booze, looking about him with unseeing eyes. He moved his right tentacle toward his jaw, and wondered what had happened to his stubble... his jaw had never felt so large and smooth...
The headache grew stronger — he groaned with pain, squinting — and the blue-green waves roared crashing through the street. As he crouched, he saw his feet: flat, long, and gray, making little flapping sounds as he staggered through the wet, white sand. His gaze shot upward. The sun turned green (natural or filtered through the atmosphere?), outshining its tiny white companion star.
He opened his mouth and screamed. ”Gnnh... chiskr-r-r... chiskr-r-r... chis chiptl mmer-r-r-lleee!!”
The soldier collapsed in the street. The passing citizens stared at the fallen Westerner, amazed at his inhuman gibberish. A few men rushed out of the café and leaned down around him to see. The soldier lay unconscious but seemingly in turmoil — his arms and legs made strange, almost undulating movements, as if he attempted to dance. Or swim.
“He’s having an epileptic fit,” one of the café-goers said. “Get this man to the American military hospital. Hurry!”
A pen was wedged between the soldier’s jaws; the café owner called for a taxi with his cellular phone. Within a minute, the men could carry the soldier into the passenger seat. He had ceased moving now, and lay limp in the seat as the car drove him through the streets of the city.
Alien Beach © A.R.Yngve 1997, 2004, 2005.
All rights reserved.