Ethan descended the steps quickly, his chin tilted upward to retain the composure of a man in quiet control. At the bottom, he walked down a hallway as other senators and Airmen of all ranks raced past him in both directions. Some nodded. Others seemed oblivious behind uneasy expressions. As he approached, a uniformed Marine caught sight of him, and with sharp moves, she unlocked and opened a door on her right. He stepped through to the Situation Room, where a screen that dominated one of the walls showed the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews rippling under the afternoon sun. Two Airmen leaned over laptops, their backs to him. On his right, Senator Mariana Delgado, the ranking member of the Visitor Security Armed Services Committee, leapt from her chair as the door clicked closed behind him.
“Ethan,” she said, reaching out for a handshake neither of them seemed to expect. In public she always addressed him as “Senator Melbourne” or “Chairman Melbourne.” That she used neither betrayed her nerves. “They just broke the atmosphere—” she cut herself short. “First, how are you? How is Helen doing?”
“She has fewer good moments these days,” said Ethan. “But she’s very strong. She’ll fight all the way.” He allowed a small smile. “We’re okay, all things considered. I’ll let her know you asked after her, even with all this going on.” He gave Mariana’s hand an extra squeeze before looking up toward the screen.
“Airman?” Mariana’s voice switched to an authoritative bark in a blink. “ETA?”
“Four minutes, ma’am. We have visual.”
On a large screen against the far wall, an object fell out of the blue. Cameras tracked it with such precision it hardly seemed to move, but it began to grow larger and take on a conical shape. Air burned yellow beneath it. A contrail appeared as a straight, vibrating line off the peak.
“Passing ten thousand feet,” the other Airman said. “Eight thousand. Four thousand. Two thousand.” His voice rose. “One thousand.”
“Here we go,” Mariana whispered.
The fight of air beneath the object suddenly ebbed, and the ship slowed until it came to rest on the tarmac.
Ethan leaned on the back of a chair and stared at the cone of dull metal—or something that looked like metal. It had no other features aside from a scouring of scorch marks along its base, and those were already evaporating like breath against a window.
“Dimensions?” Ethan asked.
“Twenty-two feet tall to the apex, eighteen wide, sir. There’s—”
Part of the ship’s side opened, seeming to bend in on itself.
“Well, they’re not wasting any time,” Ethan said. “Let’s see if they—”
“Goddamn!” one of the Airmen shouted.
As the son of a pastor, and a devout Christian himself, Ethan never allowed anyone to take the Lord’s name in vain, but he let the Airman’s words ring unchecked. “What’s wrong with the image?” he asked.
“Get a better camera angle,” Mariana said.
None of the Committee’s simulations had quite prepared them for this. Three entities in front of the cone looked like holes in the display, pitch-black amorphous shapes with jagged points on all sides. So dark, they appeared as two-dimensional cut outs against a three-dimensional world.
The second angle, closer in, showed the same. They moved on articulating appendages of some kind.
“Blackest darkness is reserved for them,” muttered Ethan.
“What?” Mariana turned toward him, fingertips on her mouth, eyes wide.
“It’s a warning from Second Peter.”
Mariana didn’t move.
“President is on the tarmac.”
The view panned back to show President Bill Guo walking briskly down the runway. The entities moved toward him. They seemed to have four legs, but they moved them bipedally, with the two on each side stepping in tandem. As they moved, the spikes and barbs surrounding them shrank and grew. It was like looking at the shadow of a walking mass of thorns.
The president stopped walking and stood with his hands at his sides like a politician in a photoshoot.
“Be careful,” Mariana muttered to the screen.
Ethan didn’t like Bill, but he had to give the man credit; he stood tall, shoulders back, and even had a glint of a smile as the entities, about half again taller than him, slowed to stand before him.
With a sudden and fluid motion that spasmed the fingers of a dozen hidden snipers, the creature in front unfolded an arm-like appendage and attached a small, white disk to the side facing Bill. With effort, Ethan could focus on the disk and infer a third dimension to the thing.
Then it spoke.
A beating rumble vibrated the speakers. The president took half a step back, but then stepped forward again. The rumbling continued for several seconds before a jarringly human, genderless voice said, “We come in peace.”
“We come in peace?” muttered Mariana. “They land at Andrews and actually say, ‘we come in peace’? It’s like they’re following a movie script.”
“Actually, ma’am, we’ve been beaming movies out into space for a hundred years,” an Airman said. “They might think that’s what we’re expecting.”
Bill gave all the greetings one would expect. Welcome to Earth. We welcome you in peace. I am William Guo, President of the United States of America.
“I can’t look at them,” Mariana said. “It hurts my head. Why can’t I look at them?”
“I know,” said Ethan, aware he was blinking constantly. “Look at the disk. I think it helps with depth perception.”
“It’s a translator,” the Airman said. “It converts their vibrational patterns into human speech.”
The pulsing rumble came again. “We are honored.”
“We are honored by your visit and that you have learned our language,” Bill said. “We have arranged hospitality. Will you please come with me?” He walked down the tarmac where the Air Force had erected a temporary hanger. The three creatures shifted slightly and walked behind him with a smooth, level gait.
“They’re like insects. Or beetles,” said Ethan.
“On their hind legs.”
“Thorns,” he muttered. “I think they’re covered in thorns, and barbs. And horns… like scarabs.”
“Sir, ma’am, what we’re seeing might be suits of some kind. It’s pretty unlikely they can breathe our air.”
“Get them into the testing center, immediately. Get them scanned.”
“Ethan,” Mariana said, “we can’t rush this.”
He glanced at her. “We need to know what we’re dealing with. Their biology—their medical knowledge.”
“Medical knowledge? Is this about Helen?”
Bill and the shifting voids walked into the hangar’s shadow. A pair of Marines in dress uniforms pulled large, red curtains closed behind them. Given that the hanger and pageantry was erected with less than a day’s notice, it was impressive. Curtains along the interior made the inside appear almost regal.
Inside, the lack of distinct shadows made the creatures’ dimensions and exact distance from the camera difficult to judge. Twenty dignitaries, hastily assembled, began fidgeting in their seats. The Italian ambassador stood quickly and walked to the rear of the hanger, and judging from the look on his face, the ambassador from Zimbabwe was obviously reassessing his own presence.
Bill turned to the entities. “Is there anything we can offer to make you more comfortable?”
The rumble, more of a beating sound of air, poured forth before one of the disks translated, “We are comfortable. We are appreciative of your hospitality.”
A clanging sound rang out as the Australian ambassador stepped hurriedly over his fallen chair and strode quickly out the back of the hangar. The consul from Zimbabwe followed. The rumble never ceased.
“We offer… technology. Interstellar travel. Metallic and ceramic alloys. All knowledge we possess is offered.”
“This is too easy,” Ethan said. “Too smooth. They’ve been planning this for a while.”
“But they’re offering amazing things, and they’re making the first move,” Mariana replied. “That’s a good sign.”
“No. This doesn’t feel right,” said Ethan. “They need something from us.”
“…to understand who we are talking with,” Bill was saying. “If you are wearing protective…” Bill made motions from head to toe, apparently trying to mime a space suit. “We would be happy to attempt to accommodate your physiology.”
The beating air came again, and from the creature on the right two long, thin arm-like appendages seemed to fold out of its blackness as the voice from the middle creature said, “We understand. You need to understand our biology.”
The creature held its arms out in front of its body, taking hold of one with the other. Something flashed. The creature twitched. The appendage detached.
“Jesus!” Mariana gasped, covering her mouth with both hands.
The thing held its severed limb out to Bill, the long fingers trailing to the floor. He stood, staring at the arm while a dark puddle formed beneath it.
“Did something come out of its body?” Ethan shouted.
“Sir, we think so, sir!”
“Something came out of its body and cut its arm off?” he repeated.
“I don’t know, sir!” the Airman replied. “We’ve got another camera angle. I’m going to slow it down, sir.”
The video progressed frame by frame. In a blurred motion, a black appendage, shorter and more robust than the arms, unfolded and shot forward. A claw like a lobster’s opened and closed, cleaved the arm off, and snapped back into the creature’s body.
Mariana stood against the wall with her hands still over her mouth. Ethan looked back to the live feed. Someone had taken the arm. Bill still stood as straight as ever, but his face had lost all color and he seemed to be sucking in his cheeks. The creature held its stump vertically, visible against the silhouette of thorns only where a line of dark purple liquid dripped down it.
“That is…” Bill glanced at the puddle at his feet. “…most generous. We are—we are humbled at your gift. We can’t reciprocate, exactly. We would like to give you a gift… We would like to honor you… your visit…” Bill stopped and swallowed. “What can we do for you?”
Ethan leaned forward again. The audio thrummed.
“We ask for one-hundred and twenty-eight.”
The president blinked several times.
“We ask for one-hundred and twenty-eight dying humans. For now.”
The room, the hangar, the air stood in a long, empty silence.
“Get one of those things in a room. Not the interrogation room. I want a room with no mics or cameras. No surveillance of any kind. If anyone gives you a problem, have them call me immediately. Immediately. Are we clear?” he pointed to an Airman wearing headphones. “You. Take me there. Bring your equipment.” As the Airman barked a yessir, Ethan caught Mariana’s critical glare, but she said nothing as he passed her on the way out.
He had to walk quickly to keep up with the Airman’s gait. The hallways bustled with nervous tension. Somehow, he felt himself getting closer to the thing. Through the many walls, the many corridors, it radiated a dread he could read in each passing face.
“It seems they’re not wearing suits, sir,” said the Airman, one hand to the comm in his ear, the other handing Ethan a ruggedized tablet. “Their skin, their carapace, is absorbing nearly all the light shining on it. We’re trying different wavelengths now.”
On Ethan’s tablet, a series of tomographic images appeared. Black and white and blurry, but enough to make out that the entities did indeed look like upright scarabs covered in sharp spikes, curved triangular thorns, and hooked barbs devoid of symmetry. They had four legs that could interconnect and operate as two, no head, and multiple arms that lay flush against their bodies.
“Sir, there’s an extremely narrow band of infrared that is not absorbed by the carapace. We’re seeing nine orbs. Nine orbs under the shell.”
“Eyes. They see through the carapace, in infrared, in all directions at once.”
For some reason, Ethan found this detail more disturbing than the rest. They’re built like Hell’s own predators, he thought as he touched the image on the screen. Why would they have to watch their backs?
When he looked up again, they were approaching a group of Marines filling the hallway beside a nondescript pair of metal doors in the concrete-block wall. Stances trained and determined, but eyes wide and darting.
“It’s in there?” he asked the nearest Marine, though he knew it was a ridiculous question.
Ethan turned to the doors, buttoned his jacket, and squared his shoulders.
“Good luck, sir,” said the Airman.
Ethan opened the door.
The unfurnished room was walled with white-painted concrete, bright and stark under the harsh fluorescent lighting; the floor, the same concrete tile that clacked under his dress shoes; the air, recycled yet humid with the smell of cleanser. And at the far wall, less than twenty feet away from him, the light fell into a ragged tear. The door clicked closed and the skin behind Ethan’s jaw tensed as his mammalian brain tried to orient his ears toward the sound. In the small space, the shifting void stood nearly to the ceiling. It took a step, a scraping sound like hooves on tile.
“Stay there!” Ethan said, much louder than he meant to, finger outstretched and pointing.
His cheeks twitched. On-screen, the things were hard enough to focus on, but in-person… Ethan’s brain, trying to make sense of the complete absence of depth information, perceived it as far away one second and suddenly much, much closer an instant later. It could be holding a claw inches from his face, and he’d never see it against the blackness of its body.
Ethan was not ready for its voice.
A beating, like the thumping of a hummingbird’s wings tuned down many octaves, vibrated in his chest. Ethan choked against the pressure in his lungs. He’d read of the effect of infrasound weapons, how it induced fear and hopelessness and colon spasms. He could feel it in his own, requiring actual concentration to maintain control.
“You are Ethan Melbourne,” the visitor said.
Ethan breathed heavily a few times and held his teeth together hard. The disk gave dimension. Something to look at without flinching.
“How do you know my name?”
“Your communications are not secure.”
“They are—” he blinked several times, fighting the urge to squint. His fingertips slid along the wall. He realized he was moving, slowly, sidestepping. The hair on the back of his neck hurt against his collar. He took in a deep breath through his nose and one step forward, straightening his jacket.
“If you know my name, then you probably know my position, and that I have tremendous sway on matters involving your request.” His voice wavered, but he sounded strong, resolute, at least to himself, which mattered.
“We ask for one hundred and twenty-eight dying humans.”
“I understand that. What I need to know is why you need them. We are interested in your offer, but please understand, we do not trade people. I’ve studied an awful lot of clinical trials lately, and we frequently use one hundred and twenty-eight subjects. Is that what you’re planning? You want to test something on terminally-ill humans.”
Through his blinks he could see it shift. His breath seemed loud in ears.
“My wife is—” Ethan could see her lying in bed after chemo. See the doctor’s downturned expression even as Ethan forgot the man’s face. He realized he’d never said the phrase out loud. “My wife is dying.”
Diplomacy utterly forbade him from asking anything personal in negotiations, but maybe the thing understood English well enough to read between the lines. Ethan found himself clenching and unclenching his toes.
It didn’t respond. It occurred to Ethan that it might be conferring with the others somehow. Or with many others.
“What exactly do you want to test on dying humans?”
The barbed outline shifted. Ethan felt the voice in his chest, in his bones.
The thing suddenly took a step. Ethan reacted by stepping sideways again. His upper lip itched with new sweat.
“I don’t—I don’t understand.”
“We traveled the stars for hundreds of your life spans. We found sapience on six worlds. Two worlds have herbivores only. Four worlds have herbivores and carnivores. Our world is one of hyperpredation. All plants and animals use chemosynthesis and photosynthesis, and all life is also predatory. Our biology is unlike yours. Cellular degradation is always repaired. Aging never evolved because it was unnecessary. On a world of hyperpredation, all will be preyed upon. Change of generations is ensured. Death by predation is certain.”
The words came fast, in a stream almost without pauses. Ethan was taken aback, fumbling to comprehend
“You don’t age?” Ethan’s forehead furrowed. “You just kill each other?”
“We had not the concept of aging until we met other life. On two of the sapient worlds we found, the sapients had completely died out.”
The pulsing in the air paused. The barbs seemed to move.
“On each world we visited, once a sapient being becomes conscious, it never becomes unconscious. Your world is unique. Sleep removes an organism’s defenses, yet your evolution preserved it in every creature, over every generation.”
Ethan’s eyes darted around the entity’s outline. “You want to learn to sleep?”
“We can measure consciousness. It is created by the body but it is not of the body. On each world we visited, when a sapient becomes conscious, it never becomes unconscious. It never becomes unconscious. Do you understand?”
The visitor shifted again, a slight movement of the spines.
Ethan shook his head. Stopped. “Wait, never?”
“Yes,” came the rumble.
“You’re saying you retain consciousness after death?”
“Yes. Consciousness detection is our most advanced science. Our whole species is devoted to it beyond all else. We can see thoughts, emotions, and memories in a sapient mind. We can see those continue after death.”
“That’s…” Ethan opened and closed his mouth several times, searching for words. “You think you’ve found the spirit? The soul?”
“No. It is excommunication. Consciousness exists after death, but conscious of nothing. It is cut off from the body. It is cut off from all sensation. It is cut off from all communication. It is excommunication. It is the ultimate cruelty.”
A hoof scraped the floor as the entity took a rolling step forward. “When we learned this, we ceased procreation. We cannot have offspring if we know their consciousness will exist forever isolated, tormented. The lack of outside communication drives the consciousness to madness. It is clear. It is documented. It is irrefutable. All who have ever lived, exist still—in agony. We believe the two dead worlds discovered the same truth, ceased procreation, and expired.”
Its rumble grew in volume. “We must end consciousness at the time of physical death. No other species can survive long enough to accomplish this. Will will not expire. We will end excommunication.”
As the thrumming ebbed, Ethan became aware of pounding on the door and shouts asking if he was okay.
“I’m fine!” he yelled back, never taking his eyes from the thing.
“We ask for one-hundred and twenty-eight dying humans. We must understand how the human body suppresses consciousness. We must adapt this to all sapient beings of all species at the time of death before they suffer excommunication themselves. Earth creatures are the only intelligent sapients in the known universe that lose consciousness. You are the key. You are the answer.”
The silence stretched. Ethan let it. For the briefest of moments, the entity seemed less like a living nightmare and more like a simple being, trapped in a white, antiseptic hospital room, desperate for any sign of hope.
“I have no doubt you could take everything you want from us by force,” Ethan said. “Probably easily. But you’re asking. You’re asking for permission.”
“We require consent. We will not violate your autonomy. We ask.”
Ethan breathed deeply. Nodded to himself. “I’ll recommend that we ask also. There will be a lot to sort out—a lot—but I am confident we’ll find more than enough volunteers.”
“We thank you, Ethan Melbourne. We will proceed with our offering of technology.” It paused. “Including whatever medical technology might be of use.”
Ethan nodded again, the barest flicker of a smile touching his face as walked to the door. Whatever medical technology might be of use. The air pulsed before he reached the door.
“You cannot speak of excommunication to anyone. The peril is too severe.”
Ethan turned, hand on the doorknob. “I don’t understand. Why not?”
“Because your species is the key. We can not risk you ceasing procreation and expiring.”
“Why would we do that? You said we’re unique. We lose consciousness.”
The outline of barbs and thorns moved. Moved again.
“We said the human body has the ability to suppress consciousness.”
“But…” Ethan stared for a long moment, thought of his mother and father, his grandparents, the countless graves and burial grounds spanning the eons of human existence. When he spoke, he heard his own words far away, as if spoken by someone else.
“But then the body dies…”