The Great Silent Treatment

The trouble first started when the observatories tasked with tracking potentially-hazardous asteroids reported several objects headed towards Earth on similar trajectories and at very high speeds—much too fast to originate from within the Solar system. On paper it looked like a mistake, not even worth reporting, but astronomers’ attempts to find the error only served to produce more asteroids. The find was sent up the telescope pecking order until it got to us at Keck, and we turned the huge mirrors on the peak of Mauna Kea to take a look.

When we did, we didn’t see a handful asteroids; we saw hundreds. There had been no error. There were at least five hundred asteroids, all of them about the same size, all moving in the same direction—straight towards Earth—and all sprinkled evenly across a little swath of space just a hundred thousand miles wide—sprinkled a little too evenly, in fact.

We realized that we were not, in fact, seeing impending death by asteroids, at which we started making calls.

“Office of the President.”

“Yes. This is the director of the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. We believe we’ve just detected several hundred alien spacecraft approaching Earth at high speed.”

Click.

“Department of Defense.”

“We have several observatories tracking what appears to be a large fleet of alien spacecraft.”

Click.

“NASA.”

“Can you guys take a look at this? We have a cluster of high-speed NEOs with some artificial-looking properties.”

“Look, if you want Hubble time, you’ll have to wait in line like everyone else.”

Click.

“NORAD.”

“Okay, before you hang up on me, you might want to point your secret interplanetary radar or whatever you have up there in the general direction of Aquarius.”

“Alright, sir. Send us your data, and we’ll call you back.”

They actually did call us back…after they called the White House. They took it even more seriously than I expected. Before I knew it, I was sitting in the Oval Office, having been whisked across the country at Mach 5 by an airplane that didn’t officially exist.

We had barely sat down when the President spun his laptop around to show the latest radar movie from NORAD. It only confirmed what we already suspected: three hundred spaceships, each about a mile long, drifting back and forth in a cloud-like formation, were coming our way. Countless smaller ships zipped between them. Their speed was about a hundred miles a second, and they would reach Earth in two days.

“Military intelligence reports that there’s no way these things could have come from any country on Earth,” the President said. “Do you agree?”

“Yes sir,” I replied, “We’re looking at a billion tons of metal, and it’s moving twice as fast as anything we’ve ever launched.”

“Metal? Are you sure?”

“Yes, spectral analysis confirms it. Whatever they are, they aren’t natural, and they aren’t terrestrial.”

“How long before the public notices?”

“I’m surprised they haven’t noticed already. I’d give it till midnight at the latest.”

“Midnight tonight?”

“More likely around dinner time.”

The President turned to his aide and said, “Put a rush on those remarks; I need them for immediate release.” He turned back to me. “Now, the money question: why are they here?”

“How should I know? Why don’t you call them and ask them yourself?”

“We did just that before you arrived. General?” he asked over the satellite link to NORAD.

“Still no response sir.”

“I’m afraid that with no other information, we must prepare for all contingencies,” the President said. “General, go to DEFCON 3 until further notice with updates every four hours.”

“Yes, sir.”


By the time the aliens arrived, the President’s men had assembled a team of alien experts in the East Wing—if by “alien experts” you mean that they locked a bunch of astronomers and anthropologists in a room and hoped we didn’t kill each other. At least they kept their distance from the UFO nuts. A few junior staffers got stuck with the job of providing food and drinks for us and writing down all of our cockamamie ideas. It made us feel sorry for them when we weren’t too busy arguing.

We knew that evolution could produce any number of psychological profiles in lower animals, but everyone had a different opinion—or opinions—on which ones could survive long enough to produce an advanced civilization. In other words, we had nothing. Well, not quite: we did put together a mathematical message that would translate a few very basic concepts into what we hoped was a universally intelligible language in what most of us agreed was a foolproof way, but the aliens never replied. We could pick up plenty of radio chatter among themselves, but none of it was ever pointed at us.

We were in the middle of debating the plausibility of the existences of something like one of the more exotic aliens from science fiction when one of those poor junior staffers burst in and shouted that the alien fleet was entering a high orbit.

A few of us went down and met the President in the bunker, where the Secret Service had insisted on taking him, for all the good it would do. He was watching a whole wall of video feeds, from the public reactions in New York to the main floor at NORAD, but the most important one was the radar loop. The big ships were settling into a very high orbit, but some of the little ones were moving in closer.

“Here, what do you make of this?” he asked.

“Scouts, maybe?” one of us said.

“Or missiles,” the Secretary of Defense countered.

“Can you tell them to break off?” said the President.

“If they’ve paid attention to all the other messages we’ve sent them, yes, we can translate that, but we don’t have much time. We may need to shoot them down.”

“Um, we can’t shoot them down, sir,” NORAD interrupted. “They’re too fast for our missiles to catch up with them.”

“What? You’re saying we’re defenseless?” the President demanded.

“Well, we might be able to get them with air-to-air lasers, but we’re talking fractions of a second, sir.”

“Fine, scramble the lasers.”

But before the modified 747s with their enormous anti-missile lasers—which didn’t officially exist—could even take off, the alien ships changed course. They settled into a network of low Earth orbits, in which they were constantly repositioning and changing direction. We watched them for a while with the growing inkling that they were surveying something. There were about a hundred of the little ships—radar said they were about the size of fighter planes—and their paths took them over most parts of Earth’s surface, land and sea. Radio chatter was still going strong, but they seemed to be only looking at us. There was no sign of weapons being deployed, and no one on Earth wanted to be the first to push the button.

After they’d had time to scan Earth’s surface a couple of times, and after a lot more unanswered hails, they started moving again. They dropped down further, to the orbits where most of our satellites were, and gathered into a few tight clusters. It was only then that we began to realize what they were doing.

“ISS, this is Houston,” came a voice from one of the video feeds. “You’ve got eight alien craft approaching at high speeds.”

The International Space Station was on a neighboring screen. “We see them, Houston. Do you recommend we evacuate?”

“Uh, that’s a negative, ISS. They’re blocking your deorbit vector…”

“Get into the Soyuz capsules,” another controller interrupted. “If they show hostility, and you get a clear path, come back down.”

“Roger, Houston, we’re proceeding to the Soyuz.”

From our limited camera view, we heard, more than saw, the six astronauts climbing through the sections of the space station and squeezing into the two Soyuz capsules docked to the structure, ready to make a quick return to Earth. The eight alien ships zoomed up and encircled the station. They were small, maneuverable ships not too different from upper stage rocket boosters with a few appendages.

“ISS, Houston. What do you see up there?”

“Uh, not sure, Houston,” the commander replied nervously. “They’re just kinda sitting there. They’ve taken up some kind of formation around us.”

“ISS, can you see the aliens in the ships from there?”

“Negative. They’re in pressure suits, and they only have small windows. They’re…I think they’re blue, but that’s all I can tell. Here, I’ll try to get some pictures.”

We saw the commander pull out his camera and take a couple of pictures before the ships began to move again. They circled under the station and strung tethers from their pylons, ship to ship, then began moving up toward the station’s frame.

“Bozhe moy, it’s a net! Evakuerovat!”

In the confusion, we had no idea if anyone got away. We later learned that one of the capsules did have a clear path to unberth and drop back to Earth, but all we knew at the time was that there was still a lot of shouting coming from the station.

“We’re moving! We’re mov…” The voice cut off.

“ISS, respond.”

The computers reestablished the signal. The astronauts were sitting oddly in the capsule. We soon realized they were hanging upside-down in their seats. “They’re pulling us up, and fast—tenth of a gee, maybe more.”

“Can the station take that?”

No response. Everyone could hear the joints groaning under the stress, though. For ten agonizing minutes, we watched as the station was lifted higher and higher into orbit until…
“They’ve stopped.” The voice came from Houston.

“What?”

“They’ve released the station. It’s orbiting freely again.”

“Where?”

“Let’s see…according to radar, it’s at an altitude of 323 miles, inclination 52.5 degrees, orbit is perfectly circular.”

“ISS, are you okay up there?”

“Yes, capsule’s fine. And I have positive pressure readings from all modules. No indications of a hull breech. Do you still want us to come down?”

The operators at Houston started debating the point, but the President had more pressing concerns: “Excuse me, but can we even still get to the station, now?”

“Yes, sir, it’s still well within our partners’ launch capabilities.”

“Then why did they move it?”

“Mr. President, I’ve got the Space Telescope Science Institute on the line,” a staffer interrupted. They say that two of the alien ships just grabbed the Hubble Telescope and moved it down thirty miles.”

“Down? Are they trying to knock it out of orbit?”

“No, sir, they just moved it.”

“Where is it now? General, check the radar.”

“Just a minute, sir…it looks like Hubble is now at an altitude of 323 miles, inclination 30 degrees, orbit is perfectly…”

Several alarms began beeping on the NORAD end, and the video feed cut out a moment later.

“What happened?” the President demanded.

“We lost the satellite feed. It’s…it’s like it’s not there anymore.” On the wall of monitors, all of the satellite feeds were vanishing at an alarming rate.

“They’re shooting down our satellites,” said the Secretary of Defense.

“Sir, we can coordinate all defense operations by landline, including missile launch,” advised the National Security Adviser.

“Get me NORAD again first. I want to know what happened.”

It took them a few tries to make contact again. Most communications channels were overloaded by civilian, law enforcement, and media calls. Finally, someone got back through to NORAD on an encrypted landline that had not been used in years. She put them on speakerphone.

“What’s happening, General?”

“Mr. President, I suggest evidence of hostile intent. They’ve completely disrupted our satellite systems. Communications satellites, spy satellites, weather, GPS, civilian satellite phone, satellite TV and radio—everything.”

“What about the Russian satellites?”

“Those too. They’re rearranging all of the orbits.”

“Rearranging? So they didn’t shoot them down?”

The general checked the maps again. “I’m not sure what they’re doing, sir.”

“My God,” said one of the aids from the stairway. “Mr. President, you need to see this.”

After a brief argument with the Secret Service, the President got them to let him onto the White House lawn for a couple of minutes, where we saw quite a show. A dozen bright lights streaked across the clear twilight sky. They were not the little, darting points of the spaceships high above, though those were clearly visible, but meteors—fireballs with long tails, many brighter than the half moon as they streaked past it in the west. Through the mess that was international communications at the moment, we soon learned that everyone on Earth was seeing the same show. The alleged important people rushed back down to the bunker.

“We’re under attack,” the NORAD commander shouted. “Sir, we must retaliate.”

“With what? All we have are nuclear missiles.  And what if the aliens shoot them down?”

“We have to try something, sir.”

“Wait, wait, wait!” The sound was coming from somewhere in the background at NORAD. There was some muffled shouting and half-heard discussion before the tech was put on the phone.

“Mr. President, this is not an attack, sir. None of the debris is hitting the ground—it’s all burning up in the atmosphere. And what’s more, radar says it’s not even coming from the aliens. It’s our own space junk.”

“What do mean, our own space junk?”

“Those ten thousand pieces of junk in low Earth orbit from the space program? They’ve been dropping off the radar in the same places as the meteors. That, the satellites moving around—it all fits, sir. The aliens are cleaning up low Earth orbit to make room for their ships.”

“General, do you think it’s credible?”

“I suppose it makes more sense than anything else I’ve heard today, sir.”

The President looked at me, and I nodded in agreement. “We have a lot of junk up there,” I said, “and their ships are big targets for it.”

“Even if that’s true,” the Secretary of Defense said, “it doesn’t answer the question of why the aliens are here. Mr. President, we cannot allow this encroachment on our orbital resources.”

“And if the aliens are peaceful? I don’t think we want to make them angry.”

“That’s a fine sentiment, sir, but why won’t they talk to us? That doesn’t look like a very friendly gesture.”

There was more muffled shouting on the phone. Something about missiles and radar and retaliation and loss of control. At the White House, no one could tell for sure what was happening, but it did not sound good. The General came back on after a couple of minutes. It wasn’t.

“Sir, it seems the decision’s been taken out of our hands,” he reported, his voice quavering. “The Chinese are launching kinetic anti-sat missiles at the aliens.”

“What?” the President shouted. “I thought we agreed to no unilateral action.”

No unilateral action? I thought. Then what were we just talking about doing? But there was nothing we could do now. We watched as a whole battery of Chinese missiles arced up into orbit…and promptly disappeared from the radar. Within minutes, there were reports of widespread panic in China resulting from heavy damage sustained by their military bases. They never even got close to hitting the aliens.

“Then the aliens shot down all the missiles?” the President asked.

“More than shot them down,” said the General. “As best we can tell, the anti-sat missiles were vaporized by high-powered lasers. Then the launchers were vaporized, and then…”

“Yes?”

“Nothing. They destroyed the launchers and didn’t do anything else that we can confirm.”

“Yet.”

“The good news is that the aliens are settling into stable orbits and sitting tight, sir. They’re almost done moving our satellites, and if they leave them where they are, we can reestablish communication with most of them.”

“And the bad news is that our weapons are completely useless,” the President finished.
“Not completely, sir. We should have a clear shot with air-to-air lasers, now. Do you want to use them?”

“Do we have any kind of reasonable chance of winning that way?”

“Honestly, Mr. President? No. Not against that kind of firepower.”

That made it easy enough. “Keep them at the ready, just in case, but let the Chinese or the Russians try first with their laser planes that we’re not supposed to know about.”

“Yes, sir,” the General agreed.


The lasers actually did do some damage. The trouble was that, as predicted, we were hopelessly outclassed. The alien ships were polished to a mirror finish; our planes were painted blue and white. We had megawatt-class lasers; we didn’t even want to guess at how much power the aliens controlled. The aliens were trained for a laser fight; our lasers were designed to shoot things that didn’t shoot back. The Chinese shot down a couple of ships that we later realized were probably automated drones. They were replaced immediately after the aliens disabled all of our air-to-air lasers. They started with the Chinese planes, but within minutes, they tracked down and disabled all of ours and the Russians’. I could just picture the aliens laughing as they swatted away the one fly that was a bit cleverer than the rest.

For the next day or so, they just sat in orbit, not doing anything that was evident from the ground. On the third morning of the—invasion? visitation? —the President crawled out of bed after somehow managing to sleep for a few hours. He did his best to look presentable, but the extended crisis was wearing hard on him.

“Any new activity?” he asked as he sank into his desk chair.

The Director of National Intelligence presented the latest notes and summarized the main points: “There’s been recent movement. The aliens have reorganized their main fleet into three groups on different orbits—all at 34 degrees inclination, but unevenly spaced longitudes—purpose unknown.”

“34 degrees? That…doesn’t fit their grid pattern, does it.”

“No, sir. Their new courses could cross paths with our satellites.”

“Are they preparing to land?”

“That’s one theory. We still haven’t decoded their radio chatter, though, and we still haven’t seen any transmissions that look like they’re directed at anyone on Earth, human or alien.”

The President scanned the briefing. There was an extended list of our “theories” about the aliens—everything from how they traveled to what they wanted to why they wouldn’t talk to us. It was even more wild than the previous list.

“Do we actually know anything about these guys?” the President asked.

Ha! I could have answered that. Jack squat, that’s what. Okay, we were pretty sure they were carbon based by that point, and they had to have come from an Earth-like environment, but beyond that, we had no idea, and most of us didn’t want to admit it.

The Director was going on about what the Chinese were saying—that they’d found “vulnerabilities” in the alien fleet. “Weak points”, and “critical subsystems”. Maybe even “gaps” in their defenses. We had to flush those ideas out of the President’s head later. None of it mattered if no one could get missiles anywhere near them, and no one was trying, were they?

As it happened, the aliens were preparing to land—or at least some of them. The commander at NORAD confirmed it when he called in on the newly-reestablished secure satellite link.

“What’s happening, General?”

“Mr. President, three of the largest alien ships are dropping out of orbit and entering the atmosphere.”

“Where?”

“We’re tracking one over the Upper Midwest, one near Hawaii, and one over the South Pacific. We don’t think any of them will land on U.S. soil, but we’re still extrapolating. We have about thirty minutes before they hit the lower atmosphere. Do you want us to scramble fighters?”

“Do you think that would really help?”

“I don’t know, sir, but I’d feel better than just sitting here.”

The President sighed, rubbing his temples. “Ah…standard patrol patterns. And tell me as soon as you have their destinations.”

We soon saw that all three ships were headed toward major cities: Guayaquil, Ecuador; Montevideo, Uruguay; and Cape Town, South Africa—major, but of practically no strategic value by western standards. I’m not sure what we were expecting, but we always used to love to flatter ourselves by imaging the aliens showing up over our First World power centers. The whole room was thrown into confusion trying to figure out this move.

“Why those three cities?”

“Transportation, maybe? They’re all major port cities,” someone suggested.

“Or resources. They all have plenty of local farmland.”

“They’re all in warm climates.”

“All in the Southern Hemisphere.”

“No, why would that matter?”

“They’re all about the same size, sir—two to four million people each.”

“Maybe that’s why they didn’t try for Buenos Aires. It’s a lot bigger.”

“Aha! They’re all in developing countries. Or at least not fully developed to our standards. If it’s an invasion, they’ll want to establish a beachhead on a soft target.”

“Are we sure it’s an invasion” the President asked.

“I don’t see much alternative to an invasion, sir. None of them are political hot-spots, either. Frankly, no one cares enough about those countries to send a large army to take them back.”

“What’s their own military strength?”

“Not enough. And no laser weaponry. They’ll need help if we want to defend them.” There was a pause. “Do we want to defend them, Mr. President?”

“We need to consider the possibility,” he said. “If this is a global invasion, we’ll have to do it sooner or later.”

“And if it’s only a local invasion?”

“Is there such a thing with aliens?”

“We’ll need global support on this, sir. If nothing else, to make sure no one oversteps their bounds. This is an international matter, after all.”

“Then we deal with it internationally,” the President said. “Set up a teleconference with all of the nuclear powers. Then we’ll make a plan.”


And so, all of the world’s confirmed nuclear powers and anyone else who could commit the resources got together…and accomplished absolutely nothing. From what we could tell, they didn’t even annoy the aliens. No projectile weapons could penetrate their defenses. Missiles were shot down with lasers, and bullets bounced off some kind of force field. Any airplanes that came within about ten miles of the alien ships had their instruments scrambled, and, if they persisted, their wings shot off. None of the pilots were killed, though, except for a couple who managed to fly what was left of their planes close enough to get vaporized by the lasers.

Soon, the three alien spaceships landed unopposed on the outskirts of three moderately developed Third World cities. In all three cities, police and military personnel were lined up to confront the invaders the minute they walked out their doors, but they never got that chance. Smaller craft launched out of the big ships by the hundreds and made short work of the defenders, disabling all weapons all the way down to pistols with precision laser fire.

What happened next was almost a repeat of the dance they had gone through in orbit. They swept up all the humans they could find in nets—nets that proved impervious to any quick cutting method—and carried them off, only to set them down gently in nearby cities. People got the message pretty quick and hid in buildings, but the aliens were prepared for that, too. Yet smaller drones found ways inside—smashing widows, lasering doors off their hinges, flying down chimneys, whatever it took—and dragged anyone inside out into the streets.

We watched the live coverage from the White House bunker. One brave—and foolish—reporter in Montevideo stood in front of a large window to film the fray. One of the black, hovering disks lashed out with flailing cables and smashed out a chunk of the window large enough to pull her through. It grabbed her by the wrist and ankle, and she and her cameraman were picked up in one of the nets and carried away. The English subtitles of her screams read, “Keep filming! Keep filming!” I had to admire her journalistic dedication.

“I don’t understand. What are they doing?” the President asked.

“Clearly, it’s an invasion, sir.”

“Yes, I know that, but what’s with the nets and the ropes and dropping people off ten miles away?”

“From what we can see, they’re going out of their way not to seriously hurt anyone. They’re avoiding critical infrastructure—hospitals, airports, the normal roadways out of the cities. It’s like they’re trying to get everyone to evacuate on their own.”

“And the ones who don’t get rounded up like animals.”

“Maybe that’s how they see us.”

“It would certainly explain why they’re not talking to us.”

“The question is,” said the Secretary of Defense, “is the ten-mile perimeter there because that’s all they want, or its all they have the resources to clear out…Or is it just the first phase?”

“They clearly have a lot more resources than they’re using. I would count on them being limited that way.”

“Maybe they want the existing infrastructure of the cities. If nothing else, they’re convenient stockpiles of raw materials.”

“Raw materials? They aren’t mines. They’re displacing millions of people!” The President said, then sat silently and watched the coverage from news cameras and cell phone videos that were flooding out of the affected areas. It was all pretty much the same. “Set up another teleconference. We need to take a second look at ground forces.”

So we did, and, predictably, the ground forces were just as impotent as the air forces. Troop transport aircraft were turned away—if necessary roped by drones and towed away, after being threatened by the lasers. Only airliners evacuating the populace were allowed through to the airports. No one was sure how the aliens could tell the planes apart, even when they were disguised, but they did.

No vehicles except unarmed ambulances and evacuation buses could get through the perimeter. If all else failed, other vehicles would have their wheels lasered off and be carried away wholesale. After the cities were mostly cleaned out, the aliens put up force field fences and stopped letting any humans in. Any stragglers they shipped out themselves. It was only then, when both sides could safely approach the perimeter, that we got a good look at them. They shared our general body plan—sort of—but not much else. They looked like a complete unknown to us.

Once the force fields were up, the other ships landed. The aliens were indeed adapted for an Earth-like environment. From their behavior, observed from outside the perimeters, and the presence of aliens of different sizes, we “experts” concluded that most of the three million aliens disembarked from the ship were families—colonists, not soldiers. Some of them set up shelters of their own, while others heavily renovated the abandoned human buildings and moved into them.

Not that the details mattered. Preparations for a massive, international, amphibious invasion of Montevideo had to be scrapped since no one could figure out how to get an army past the force fields. Covert agents who tunneled under them were caught the minute they got through. When the Russians finally tried nuclear missiles, the aliens shot them down far enough out that a detonation wouldn’t have been a threat to them anyway, and our own last resort, a high-altitude nuclear EMP, fried every electronic device in Ecuador…expect for the aliens’.

So that was it. No one could touch them. Of course, they’ve never really given us any trouble since they settled in. Despite fighting the combined military might of Earth and relocating ten million people, the body count stood at zero aliens and less than 200 humans. They’ve even let us keep launching things into space as long as we keep to our allowed orbits…apparently: they still refuse to talk to us. We don’t even know their name.

Huge amounts of valuable telescope time has been spent trying to figure out what the aliens are actually doing. As best we can tell, they set up those three colonies and never bothered with the rest of the planet. Instead, they started a lucrative trade of heavy metals mined from Mercury. There are ships coming and going all the time from the general direction of Aquarius, apparently carrying bulk cargo. Despite the protestations of the all the people they displaced, the international consensus seems to be to just live with them.

Wouldn’t that be nice? Unfortunately, reality never works out so smoothly. Most of South America is under martial law, and there’s an army assembling at Buenos Aires, arming up with lasers and what little alien tech they could reverse engineer just by looking. Washington claims that only the Chinese are behind it, and everyone else is pretending to believe them. Whoever it is, they’re still gearing up to invade Montevideo. The rest of us are starting to worry they might succeed.

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