Scheduled for release in Fall 2021.
Singapore, 39 B.E.W.
It arrived in the morning, during rush hour. At first it was a fireball plunging from the heavens toward the city; then a jet aircraft roaring across the straits, its supersonic boom trailing behind like a belated announcement of its coming; then a spaceplane painting great, swooping S-curves in the cloudless sky to throw off speed. It flew low over the Great Sea Wall and the Marina Bay Golf Course, and lower still over the bay bridges, finally plunging into the bay and disappearing in an eruption of steam and water. A white, ellipsoid craft bobbed to the surface and casually made its way to the dock at National Stadium Square.
Had Holly been standing on the hotel room’s balcony, she would have seen the alien’s arrival herself. But she wasn’t. She was inside watching a virtual lecture by her chemistry professor at the University of Auckland. She was attending virtually because she was in Singapore, and she was in Singapore because her father was a presenter at a mathematics conference and decided to bring her along. He believed life experiences were at least as important as formal education.
The vidscreen abruptly went dark and Professor Engleman was replaced by the image of a white, teardrop-shaped object floating in the water next to Singapore’s National Stadium. The chyron scrolling across the bottom of the screen read: SNN breaking news: UFO lands in Singapore.
Holly laughed out loud. Somebody had hacked the Singapore News Network feed with a story you’d expect to find on one of the tabloid feeds. This was going to be a serious embarrassment for the folks at SNN.
The presenter’s voice joined the video: “. . . plunged into Singapore’s Marina Bay, causing a mini-tsunami that swamped water craft, and inundated streets and parks around the bay. As you can see, it is now floating alongside the dock at National Stadium Square. We have received eyewitness reports claiming it had stubby wings when it came down, though I don’t see any now. We are also hearing that the two box-like objects on the fat end of the craft and the antenna on the tail end appeared after the ship came to a rest beside the dock.”
The familiar voice of SNN’s John Hong laid to rest her hacking theory. She stepped out onto the small balcony to see for herself. She had to lean over the railing to get an unobstructed view of the Stadium, and there it was, an alien spacecraft, just like on the vidscreen except without the magnification provided by SNN’s drone.
She ran back into the room and rummaged through a suitcase until she found her dad’s binoculars. It took a few seconds to zero in on the small craft and bring it into focus, then it sprang large into view.
“Oh … ” Goose bumps stood up on her arms.
It was the size of one of those mega-yachts you could see docked at the New Auckland Yacht Club; the ones that never seemed to go anywhere. Its smooth, white surface showed no signs of having come through a fiery reentry. Black crenelated ridges ran along its sides at the waterline.
“Holly Margaret Burton!” Her dad’s voice broke into the moment. “Do not lean over the railing. You know better than that. It’s a fifteen floor drop to the street.” He had come out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist, drying his hair with another.
“There’s a spaceship in the bay,” she said.
The voiceover from the vidscreen caught his attention.
“We are getting reports that the Americans and the Chinese both picked it up on radar shortly after it entered—”
A female voice broke in. “John, we just received a report that the Russians and the Australians also tracked it. My God, this is really happening.”
“It does seem that way. Gentlepeople, we may be looking at a visitor from another world. I . . . I don’t even know what to say.”
Her dad joined her on the balcony. She handed him the binoculars, and he brought them to his eyes. A minute later, he handed them back and returned to the room. He turned off the vidscreen, sank onto the couch, and stared at an invisible spot on the carpet.
Holly followed him and after a few moments said, “Can we go down and see it?”
His head snapped up. “No! I mean . . . they will be blocking off access to the bay.”
He got up, walked out onto the deck again and stood there, not looking at anything as far as she could tell. When he turned toward her, his face wore a somber expression.
“Do you know what this means?” he said.
“Uh, first contact? And us at ground zero to see it?” A giggle popped out of her mouth, which was embarrassing. She never giggled. She sounded like an over-excited 15-year-old kid, which of course she was.
He took a moment to respond. “Yes, there is that. But what it means is that the fate of the human race will most likely be decided in the next few hours.”
Huh. Whatever she might have expected him to say, that wasn’t it. She had never given much thought to extraterrestrial life. She knew about SETI, of course, and she knew that thousands of exoplanets had been discovered and that some of them were the right size and at the right distance from their sun to support life, and she had always assumed there must be other intelligent life out there, but apart from a few sci-fi vids, she hadn’t really thought about what it would mean for an alien species to actually show up. Now they were here.
Another shiver ran down her arms. “Is this the beginning of an invasion?”
“What? No, of course not.” He came back into the room and started pacing back and forth. “At least not in the sense you’re thinking. I mean, I suppose it could be an invasion. Any species that can travel between the stars is going to be more than capable of conquering us or destroying us or putting us in zoos, or anything else they want to do. But that’s not what I mean.”
He pursed his lips, which meant he was organizing his thoughts before launching into teaching mode.
He said, “Let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that they are benevolent and this is not the beginning of an invasion. If they are not benevolent, there isn’t much to talk about. We would just have to wait and see what they decide to do about us.”
“Okaaay,” she said. “I like benevolent aliens better than non-benevolent aliens.”
“In our own history, what happens when a more advanced civilization encountered a less advanced civilization?”
Yup. Teaching mode. He often engaged her in discussions about . . . well, just about anything. He was a knowledge omnivore and seemed determined to make her one too.
“Bad things happen to the less advanced one?” she said.
“Exactly. The Maoris are a good example, as are the indigenous peoples of pretty much every other place the Europeans went. But in this case we are the less advanced civilization. See the problem?”
She did now that he had pointed it out. Even if the aliens were benevolent, their appearance was going to change everything, and not necessarily in a good way. He got two bottles of water out of the mini-fridge, tossed one to her, and gulped down half of the other one.
“I am encouraged by the unthreatening nature of the spaceship they sent to establish first contact,” he said. “It is small and innocuous looking; probably unmanned. Much less disruptive than, say, a fleet of warships appearing in the skies above us.”
He finished the bottle of water, tossed it in the trash, and sat down again, his elbows resting on his knees so he could stare at the carpet some more. Holly waited.
“The biggest question is not their reaction to us, but our reaction to them. Humans do not deal well with the unknown. It frightens them. Especially if they perceive it as a threat. The arrival of an alien spaceship confronts us with the greatest unknown we as a species have ever faced, and it is by its very nature threatening. It will frighten people, and frightened people are unpredictable people.”
As if on cue, the balcony slider door rattled as jets thundered overhead. She and her dad returned to the balcony and watched three military jets in formation make a wide sweep around the bay. Missiles hung from their wings. Two military helicopters held position over the bay. They carried rocket launchers.
Her dad was right. It was not the aliens they had to worry about. It was the humans.
* * *
The aliens took control of three communication satellites and over the next two days broadcast a message every hour to the entire world in Chinese, Spanish, and English. It was brief:
An invitation is extended to the following leaders to come to Singapore for a meeting between our two species:
Secretary-General of the Council of Enclaves, Teodosio Gutierrez
First Leader of the African Federation, Nashwan Badawi
President of the Christian Republic of America, Daniel Fitzgerald
Speaker for the European Federation, Gunther Holstrom
Prime Minister of Great Britain, Archie Smythe-Robson
President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Xiadong
Prime Minister of the Republic of India, Druve Batra
Prime Minister of the Republic of Australia, Edward Smith
Prime Minister of the Republic of New Zealand, Jonathan Wilson
President of the Russian Federation, Dmitri Blavatsky
President of the South American Federation, Gabriela Rocha
Prime Minister the Southeast Asia Confederation, Nayla Gao
Prime Minister of the State of Israel, Barak Ben David
Speaker for the Western Republic of America, Mario Alvarez
Holly took it as a good sign that the aliens were familiar enough with Earth’s geopolitics to know there was no single government to talk to. It would have been awkward if they had shown up and said, “Take us to your leader.” Who would that be? The thirteen alliances mentioned in the invitation represented the fifty-four enclaves of civilization that had survived the Great Collapse; islands of order in a sea of disorder, violence, and poverty.
By the morning of the third day, all the invitees were in Singapore. It wasn’t like they could decline the invitation. There was no way any of them were going to miss the most important meeting in the history of the world. According to SNN, they had agreed among themselves to gather at the National Stadium at noon. That was five hours away when Holly walked into the living area of their suite.
Her dad was working on notes for a lecture he was scheduled to give later that day. This seemed unlikely given what was happening outside, but her dad took his responsibilities seriously and would be ready if anyone showed up.
“Ah, you’re up,” he said. “Want to go down to the breakfast buffet with me?”
When they stepped off the elevator and into the lobby, the ground was shaking and the floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street were making a whump-whump-whump sound as they warped in and out. The chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling like glass stalactites swayed back and forth. At first, she thought it was an earthquake, but a rumbling sound drew her attention to the street where tanks and trucks were clanking past the hotel.
The streets had been cleared of civilian vehicles the day the alien craft arrived, but a crush of pedestrians stood on either side of the street watching the convoy make its way down the hill toward the bay. The markings on the vehicles identified them as belonging to the Johor Enclave on the other side of the channel that separated Singapore from the southern tip of Malaysia. Apparently Singapore had asked for backup from the other Enclaves in the Southeast Asia Confederation. Hopefully nobody would get trigger happy and started an interstellar war.
Her dad, having decided it wasn’t an earthquake, loaded up a plate from the breakfast buffet and headed down the hall toward the conference room where the quantum topology working group had been meeting.
“I’m gonna hang out here for a while,” she said.
He waved his hand without looking back. Despite his occasional attempts at being The Parent, he had given up trying to manage her life. In part this was because she was attending New Auckland University now, but mostly it was because of the dark years after mom died and Bobby moved to England. Her dad had fallen into a deep depression and Holly had taken care of him more than him taking care of her. Now they had something of a peer relationship.
She snagged a bagel, a packet of jam, and a carton of chocolate milk—breakfast of prodigies.
The lobby was long and narrow, extending the length of a city block. The shaking had stopped, but the chandeliers were still swaying. She avoided walking under any of them. Opposite the windows stood a massive marble check-in counter about a third as long as the lobby. The impeccably dressed staff at the counter were attentive, and unfailingly polite. Singapore was a polite city.
The staccato of shoes on the shiny tile floor provided a counterpoint to the murmur of voices as people streamed through the lobby; people with places to go and things to do; people going about their business as though there wasn’t a foreign military convey making its way through the business district; as though one of the most momentous events in history wasn’t unfolding just a few kilometers away.
She settled into an over-sized, stuffed chair at one end of the lobby, pushed her shoes off, and let them fall to the floor with a satisfying thud. The chair’s floral-patterned fabric smelled faintly of pipe tobacco, which was odd since smoking was prohibited in the hotel lobby; probably had been for decades. It brought back memories of warm summer nights on the back porch of their bach overlooking Awahou Bay; dad’s feet propped up on the railing while he puffs cherry scented clouds into the still night air. That was before mom died. Before dad’s depression. Before Bobby abandoned them.
She pulled her tablet out of her tote bag and brought up The Illiad. No matter what was happening in the bay, Professor Orson would expect to see an analysis of Homer’s epic poem next week. She soon lost herself in the story.
After a while she became aware that something was off. She looked up. The lobby had become quiet and people were standing or sitting, watching the big screens hanging from the ceiling. The clock above the check-in desk—an analog clock of all things—said quarter to twelve. She had lost track of time.
The screens showed a closeup of a tall man getting out of a limousine. He wore a suit and tie, and his full head of white hair identified him as the President of the Christian Republic of America. A tight circle of men in black surrounded him; his Secret Service detail. They were easy to spot because they were the only ones not looking at the president.
The view zoomed out to show other vehicles disgorging their occupants and security details. There was enough firepower there to give the Singaporean army a run for its money. The image blurred for a moment as the SNN drone changed its angle and zoomed in on the spaceship. The water around it was churning and the antenna and cubes were gone. Wings were extending from the sides.
“Holly?” Her dad strolled across the lobby toward her. “A few of us are in the conference room and we’ve got SNN up on the big vidscreen if you want to come watch with us.”
As she stood, a flash of blue-white light flooded the lobby, its brightness forcing her to close her eyes. The tiled floor heaved under her and a long, low moan made her skin crawl. She toppled back into the chair and her eyes flew open. The floor was undulating, like waves on the ocean. Her dad fell backward onto a low, glass-topped table, which collapsed under him in an explosion of glass.
He got to his feet and was trying to keep his balance when the wall of glass windows shattered and a blast of hot wind roared through the lobby, sounding like an old diesel locomotive. The air was full of glass. Someone behind her screamed. She turn to see a middle-aged woman lifted off her feet by the wind and propelled across the lobby where she collided with a pillar and slid to the floor, leaving a smear of blood on the pillar.
Chairs and tables were swept up in a whirlwind, along with potted plants, lamps, books, anything else that wasn’t tied down. People were shouting, crying, screaming. An ominous rumbling sound came from somewhere, getting louder, like some monstrous machine rolling inexorably toward her. It occurred to her she should get under a table or something, but her body wouldn’t move. She just sat there, frozen in the moment, her eyes staring without seeing, her mouth open, her mind unable to come up with anything resembling a coherent thought.
Her dad staggered toward her, scooped her unceremoniously out of the chair, and ran toward a stairwell that led to the parking garage below. The howling whirlwind chased them, caught them, flung them into the stairwell. Holly tumbled down the stairs and landed hard on her back with the wind knocked out of her.
A screeching from above made her look up just as the stairwell turned to dust and blew away. The ground bounced up and down, tossing her like a rag doll. The awful moaning she had heard before was closer now and louder, reaching a crescendo as pieces of broken concrete rained down on her.
* * *
It was quiet when she regained consciousness. Deathly quiet. A shaft of dusty light drifted in from somewhere, revealing that she was in a small space under a pile of broken concrete and twisted rebar. The air was hot and heavy with white dust, accompanied by the smell of smoke and something like burnt electrical equipment. She looked around and found her dad. He was pinned under a steel girder, eyes closed, not moving.
He didn’t answer.
“Daddy? Wake up, daddy.”
She crawled over to him and shook his shoulder. He didn’t respond. Her hand came away sticky and the coppery scent of blood joined the other smells. An urge to scream welled up inside her, but she clenched her teeth and put two trembling fingers on the carotid artery along her his neck. After a moment, she moved them a bit. She couldn’t find a pulse. She put her ear to his chest. He wasn’t breathing. She knew CPR, but the unnatural angle of his neck told her it wouldn’t do any good. He was dead.
She sat up as best she could in the cramped space and yelled: “Help me! Somebody help me!” She sobbed as she attacked the mountain of concrete above her, pushing and pulling at ragged-edged pieces, tears streaming down her face. Pieces of concrete gave way and broken shards showered down on her. She kept digging and digging and digging. Her fingers were bleeding, but she couldn’t stop. She had to get out.
An opening appeared, and with more digging and pushing and pulling she climbed out onto the side of a mountain of smoking rubble. An apocalyptic landscape spread out before her.
The gleaming glass towers of Singapore were gone. In their place lay a wasteland of rubble and fire and smoke and wreckage; nothing over one or two stories left standing as far as she could see in every direction. The air was hot and thick with dust and ash and smoke. A ghostly darkness blanketed the world.
A mournful wail floated across the barren landscape, rising and falling like the cries of ten thousand souls snatched away and hurled down to Homer’s House of Death. If there was a Hell, this must be what it was like.
Something dragged her unwilling eyes upward toward a mass of angry, black, roiling clouds that had swallowed up sun and sky. A sickening dread settled in the pit of her stomach when she realized what she was looking at. It was a mushroom cloud; the kind that marks the aftermath of a nuclear detonation. In the distance, where the alien spaceship had been, a dark, spindly stalk rose from the center of the devastated city and climbed high into the ash-gray sky where it merged with the expanding maelstrom.
She didn’t see any people, and no one answered when she yelled for help. She wished the wailing would stop. It had gotten inside her head and was eating away at her. Maybe this was what it felt like to lose your mind. She crawled back into the hole, a painful heaviness in her chest pulling her down into the waiting darkness. She lay beside her dad with an arm draped over his chest.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I won’t leave you alone.”
She stayed there until someone came and took her away.