The aliens arrived on a Tuesday morning during rush hour. A fireball came hurtling meteor-like out of the heavens toward the city, eventually revealing itself to be a stubby-winged spaceplane drawing great, swooping arcs in the sky to throw off speed. It soared low over the Great Sea Wall and the Marina Bay Golf Course, and lower still over the bay bridges before finally plunging into Marina Bay in the middle of Singapore’s downtown district, where it disappeared in an eruption of steam and water. A few minutes later, a white ellipsoid object bobbed to the surface and casually made its way to the dock at Singapore’s National Stadium Square.
All of this, Holly witnessed from the balcony of the hotel suite she and her dad were staying in. A window-rattling boom had brought her to her feet, and she had gripped the railing with both hands as the fireball fell toward her. Even when it became obvious that it was a spaceship or a spaceplane, it still looked like it was going to plow right into the hotel. Then it plunged into the bay a couple of kilometers away. It was a miracle it had come down in the bay at all. A couple hundred meters in any direction would have caused a lot of damage. Not to mention lives.
Satellites sometimes fell out of orbit, but this didn’t look like a satellite. It looked like a spaceplane. Only a few nations had spaceplanes, so whose was it? She went inside and said, “Room: Play SNN.”
The wall screen lit up with an image of the bay littered with swamped water craft. Inner Marina Bay was a popular boating place. The view zoomed in on the teardrop-shaped object floating in the water next to the National Stadium. The chyron scrolling across the bottom of the screen read: SNN breaking news: Unidentified spacecraft lands in downtown Singapore. Had she not seen it for herself, Holly would have thought it was a joke or that somebody had hacked the SNN feed. But she had seen it for herself.
The familiar voice of SNN’s senior presenter John Hong said, “The unidentified craft plunged into Singapore’s Marina Bay just minutes ago, 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 are getting eyewitness reports claiming it had stubby wings when it came down, though I don’t see any. We are also hearing that the two box-like objects and what looks like an antenna appeared after it came to a rest at the dock.”
Holly rummaged through a suitcase until she found her dad’s binoculars and returned to the balcony. It took a moment to find the craft and bring it into focus. Then it sprang large into view. Goose bumps climbed up 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 a fiery ride through the atmosphere. 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.” 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.
He looked at the vidscreen.
“We are getting reports that the Americans and the Chinese both picked up the unidentified craft on radar shortly after it entered the atmosphere. According to—”
A female voice broke in. “John, we have just learned that the Russians and the Australians also tracked it. Nobody seems to know where it came from, but a consensus is forming that it may be from another world. My God, this is really happening.”
“It does seem that way. Gentlepersons, we may be looking at a visitor from another world. I . . . I don’t 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, where he sank onto the couch and stared at the image on the vidscreen.
John Hong said, “We have confirmation from several sources that government authorities are viewing this as a possible alien spacecraft.”
Holly followed him in and 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 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 bore a somber expression.
“Do you know what this means?” he said.
“Uh, first contact? And us at ground zero to see it?” She giggled, which was embarrassing. She sounded like an over-excited 16-year-old kid, which, of course, she was, and being the youngest student at the University of New Auckland didn’t change that.
He took a moment to respond. “If it is in fact an alien visitor—which we don’t know for sure—then yes, we are witnessing first contact with an alien species. And if that is true, it means the fate of the human race will probably be decided in the next few days; maybe the next few hours.”
She frowned. Whatever she might have expected him to say, that wasn’t it. Other than the occasional sci-fi vid, she hadn’t thought much about alien visitations. She knew about SETI, of course, and she knew that astronomers had found thousands of exoplanets, some of which 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 she had never stopped to ask herself what it would mean for them to actually show up. Now, suddenly, they were here.
“Is this the beginning of an invasion?” she asked.
“What? No, of course not.” He came back into the room and began 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 about to launch into teaching mode.
He said, “Let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that these really are visitors from another world and that they are benevolent. I say benevolent because 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. I’ll go with benevolent aliens.”
“Now, 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 was determined to make her one, too.
“Uh . . . bad things happen to the less advanced one?”
“Exactly. New Zealand’s Maoris are a good example. As are the indigenous peoples of pretty much every place 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 would inevitably change everything, and not necessarily in a good way.
“If this is a first contact scenario,” he said, “I am encouraged by the unthreatening nature of the spaceship they sent for first contact. It’s small and innocuous looking, probably unmanned. Much less alarming than, say, a fleet of warships appearing in the skies overhead.”
He grabbed two bottles of water from the mini-fridge and tossed one to her. Then he sat down again, his elbows resting on his knees so he could stare at an invisible spot on the carpet. Holly waited.
“The biggest question is not their reaction to us, but our reaction to them. Humans do not deal well with the unknown. Especially if they perceive it as a threat, and the arrival of an alien spaceship 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 had 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 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:
- Nashwan Bedew of the African Federation
- Daniel Fitzgerald of the Christian Republic of America
- Gunther Holstrom of the European Federation
- Archie Smythe-Robson of Great Britain
- Xi Xiadong of China
- Druve Batra of India
- Edward Smith of Australia
- Jonathan Wilson of New Zealand
- Dmitri Blavatsky of the Russian Federation
- Gabriel Firea Rocha of the South American Federation
- Nayla Gao of the Southeast Asia Confederation
- Barak Ben David of Israel
- Mario Alvarez of the Republic of Pacifica
At least they 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.”
The invited leaders were the current rulers of the thirteen alliances that had emerged after the Great Collapse—that catastrophic event that occurred when global warming reached a tipping point and plunged the world into an ecological collapse that brought civilization to its knees. Six-and-a-half billion people died in the next decade from famine, disease, and war. Fifty-four enclaves of civilization survived; fifty-four city states; fifty-four islands of order in a sea of chaos, poverty, and violence. They eventually formed the thirteen alliances.
Every one of the alliances was a de facto dictatorship and every one of the named leaders was a ruthless dictator who remained in power by serving the interests of the elites and the military. There were no democracies, though most of the alliances maintained the trappings of democracy in one form or another. Democratic forms of government had proven singularly inadequate for the challenge of salvaging civilization from the wreckage of the Great Collapse.
And there would be no one at the table to speak for the two-thirds of the world’s population that lived outside the heavily defended enclaves. They were scattered across vast, inhospitable, unforgiving landscapes. They lived in a post-apocalyptic nightmare ruled by an ever-changing cast of warlords who fought among themselves for territory and resources in a world ruined by the disaster humankind had brought upon itself. Even if the aliens wanted to include them in the conversation, who would they invite? Warlords? There were hundreds of them.
Holly was incredibly lucky to have been born in an Enclave. She ate well. She lived well. She was getting an education. She could choose her own future. None of these things were available to the Outsiders. Sometimes she felt guilty about that, but mostly she didn’t think about it. After all, what could she do?
By the morning of the third day, the news feeds were reporting that all the invitees were in Singapore. It wasn’t like they could decline the invitation. None of them was going to miss the most important meeting in the world’s history. 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 room. SNN was on without volume. Her dad was reading something on his tablet.
He put the tablet down and said, “I’m going down to get something from the breakfast buffet. Want to come?”
When they stepped off the elevator and into the lobby, the ground was shaking and the floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street were oscillating with a whump-whump sound. 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 a column of tanks and heavy trucks clanked past the hotel. The tanks were huge, taking up nearly the entire width of the street.
The police had cleared the streets 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. Singapore must have asked for backup from the other Enclaves in the Southeast Asia Confederation. Hopefully nobody would get trigger-happy and start 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. That’s why they were in Singapore. He was a presenter at the mathematics conference and had brought her along for the life experience. He was a big fan of life experience.
Holly said, “I’m gonna hang out here and read for a while.”
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 in her second year at the University of New Auckland and pretty much ran her own life. But mostly it was because of the dark years after her mom died and her dad fell into a deep depression. Her brother Robert had moved—fled, really—to Christchurch, leaving Holly to take care of their dad. Since then, she and her dad had developed 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 still swayed. She avoided walking under them. Opposite the wall of windows stood a massive marble check-in counter 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 and probably had been for decades. It brought back memories of warm summer nights on the back porch of their bach overlooking Awahou Bay, her dad’s feet propped up on the railing while he puffed cherry scented clouds into the still night air. That was before her mom died. Before her dad’s depression. Before Robert abandoned them.
She pulled her tablet out of her tote bag and brought up The Iliad. No matter what was happening down at 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 realized something was wrong. 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 said it was 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 identify 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 zoomed in on the spaceship. The surrounding water was churning, and the antenna and cubes had disappeared. Wings were extending from the sides near the backend of the craft.
“Holly?” Her dad strolled across the lobby toward her. “Do you want to join us in the conference room? We have a big screen there.”
A flash of blue-white light filled the lobby, its brightness so intense it forced her to close her eyes. The tiled floor heaved under her, accompanied by a long, low moan that made her skin crawl. She opened her eyes. 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.
Then the wall of windows shattered, and a blast of hot wind roared into the lobby, sounding like an old diesel locomotive. Someone behind her screamed, and she turned to look. A middle-aged woman was lifted off her feet by the wind and tossed across the lobby where she collided with a pillar and slid to the floor, leaving behind a smear of blood. Chairs and tables were being swept up in a whirlwind, along with potted plants, lamps, books, anything that wasn’t tied down. The air was full of glass. 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 that 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 form anything resembling a coherent thought.
Her dad staggered toward her, scooped her unceremoniously out of the chair, and ran toward a stairwell leading 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 came from above and made her look up just as the stairwell above her turned to dust and blew away. The ground bounced up and down, tossing her around like a rag doll. The awful moaning she had heard earlier 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 buried 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 burned electrical equipment. She looked around and found her dad pinned under a steel girder. His eyes were closed. He wasn’t moving.
He didn’t answer.
“Dad? Wake up, daddy.”
She crawled over to him and shook his shoulder. He didn’t respond. Her hand came away sticky, and the coppery smell 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 his neck. 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 was broken. He was gone.
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 fell on her. But 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 was able to climb out onto the side of a mountain of smoking rubble. She stood and looked around. 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 grayness blanketed the world, and 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.
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. Somebody had nuked the alien ship and took out most of Singapore with it.
She didn’t see any people, and no one answered when she shouted 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, pulled down into the waiting darkness by a painful knot in her chest. She lay beside her dad and draped an arm over him. She stayed there until someone came and took her away.