Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Aliens Need Not Apply

by Noel Carroll


Fully a hundred million years had passed, and rather than showing signs of coming back, the air and water, so badly abused for so long by so many, continued to fade into near non-existence. It was a world that could no longer sustain what they once were.

But then, that no longer mattered.

"Another of the alien probes!" There was a nod from Teri, felt but not seen. There was no need to see.

"Have we determined its level of sophistication?"

"Above the ones sent previously. Whoever or whatever they are, they are making progress, more than we would like."

"We must connect, Jak; the others must know of this. And know of the danger of continuing to do nothing. How long before this is more than a probe? How long before we are staring these creatures in the face?"

"Assuming they have a face."

The object of their concern was a mobile robot slowly making its way past them. Somewhat like the vehicles they once used to explore extraterrestrial worlds, it had wheels, six of them supporting a rectangular body. From the top of this body, solar panels extended a meter or so beyond the wheels, one on each side. What appeared to be the probes business end--sensors, both visual and electronic--lay forward on its upper body atop a long neck. A short distance from this neck was a small, boxed-in platform, its distance from the neck undoubtedly to permit the head to swing down for a close-up look at whatever its mechanical arm managed to capture. Neither of the two scientists touched the probe as it rolled by, both aware that the energy in their bodies would be sensed by the probe and reported back to whatever celestial entity gave it birth.

"We once sent out probes similar to this."

Jak nodded. "I had forgotten that, Teri. But as I recall, it never amounted to much. The Great Disease put an end to all our exploring."

"Unfortunate, since we might otherwise be a step ahead of these creatures and thus better able to defend ourselves.

In Jak's response there was a hint of irritation he found difficult to hide. "We should not make more of this invasion than is warranted, Teri. After all, there is an obvious attempt here to prevent contamination of the host planet, our planet. You will note that there is no sign of bacterial presence on or within this probe. This shows a sensitivity that should command our respect."

"Bacterial contamination would not bother us."

"True, but these creatures do not know that. My point, Teri, is they show respect for the integrity of our planet."

Teri, whose judgment would be given more weight in what would come of this, felt compelled to object. She was the conscience of her people, which often meant a reluctant reporter of what many of the others would rather not acknowledge. "I will concede that the care these creatures take is a positive, but the fact that they are able to visit us while we are unable to visit them proves they possess skills superior to our own. And history tells us that a stronger power, in particular one whose physical appearance differs from the physical appearance of a weaker one, will always subjugate that weaker power."

Jak sighed, but it was less a concession to her point than to what it was leading to. Teri was practical, too practical at times, or so it seemed considering what sometimes came of her advice. "We should not take action without knowing more about this, Teri."

"The probe you mean?"

"That part is easy. I refer to the creatures who sent it."

Now it was Teri who showed irritation. "What does it matter what they may or may not be? Allowing them to advance from probe to probe until finally they learn enough to come in person is too big a risk for us to take. Considering how advanced this would prove them to be, we would literally be at their mercy."

"Since we have no need for their technology, they will conclude that we present no threat to them."

"You miss my point. 'No need' for technology does not translate into an ability to survive those who possess an abundance of it. The owners of this probe are a threat to us, Jak."

"But why must we assume that to be a sure thing? Why assume they will change from what they appear to be at the moment? For us to act without knowing for sure would make us the terrible creatures we coldly assume them to be."

"It is an unfortunate byproduct of what we have become. We have survived for a great many years, but we are few and have almost no defenses. It would be naive to expect that these creatures, with their ever-improving technology, would not take advantage of this."

"Too cynical. There is nothing in this probe that suggests its owners are motivated by anything other than curiosity."

"Remember your history; our history. How many times in our past have we abused others simply because we could? We always invented what in our minds was justification, but we know now that none of that was valid. Why assume these creatures to be any different than we ourselves once were? More likely is that the inferiority they see in us will sooner or later encourage them to treat us as inferior. To be sure they will not treat us as equals.

"Jak, if we permit them to land on our planet, it will already be too late! What happens then will be their choice, not ours. Even if we succeed in repelling them, they will know of our limited strengths and be better prepared to deal with them the next time. And count on it, Jak; there will be a next time.

"I have trouble believing it would come to that."

"But what if it does? They will be established and thus can do whatever they wish."

However much it hurt him to do so, Jak had to agree with his colleague's reasoning. Teri was not without feeling, but she offered logic that would trump compassion and even conscience every time. And the irony was she was known to possess both in abundance.

A part of Jak envied her that. What power within Teri permitted her to so coldly focus even when inside she was churning? How long could she keep going with one part of her fighting another? That she could was legendary, the main reason her opinion would prevail over his. He could not remember a time when Teri was not proven right. "We might be at their mercy in any event."

Teri understood what her colleague was saying. "True that we might not be able to prevent the invasion I so fear, Jak, but we have to try. Not to do so would of itself expose weakness to these creatures. We must in some way convince them that pursuing their curiosity to the point of a personal visit would carry an unacceptable level of risk to themselves."

Jak did not immediately respond, his mind on the disaster in their ancient past that brought them to where they were now, vastly different beings both physically and mentally from their ancient ancestors. Even their bodies were no more.

"I read extensively about the time when we were corporeal beings, yet still find it hard to imagine. What we were then is as alien to us now as are the owners of this probe."

"A hundred million years can make a difference." There was a tease in Teri's voice that Jak did not appreciate.

"The change I speak of came about more suddenly than your words suggest. Thousands of years, not millions. And were it not for the Great Disease, we would still be corporeal. Can you imagine having to maintain a body in an environment that has long since become intolerant of it."

"What we were then could not survive, Jak. Corporeal beings need lots of oxygen; we have close to none. Corporeal beings need food. Not the energy that sustains us now, but biological presence: plants, even other corporeal beings."

"The latter I also find difficult to imagine. Frankly, it disgusts me!"

"You would not think so were you to travel back in time a hundred million years. Indeed, it is you who would not survive, pure energy in an environment that was so careless in its use of energy."

"So great a change ... "

"Look even further back and you will see other great life-threatening events. Diseases, multiple volcanic eruptions, collisions with giant asteroids. The end of one line, the beginning of another--life begins anew, but in a different way. What is really remarkable is that our line has survived for so long."

"Yes, energy has certainly proven itself more durable than matter."

####

It was as if the world decided it had had enough, a population clearly out of control and an environment that could no longer repair the damage its short-thinking inhabitants never seemed to tire of inflicting upon it. The end came swiftly, nature apparently concluding there was no sense in dragging it out. First there was the rapid deterioration of the ozone layer, unstoppable as they soon realized. Then the real killer, the Great Disease that no antibiotic could touch--of all the living creatures on the planet, this eliminated 90% of them. A short 100 years later that number had grown to 98%, and even these would have been gone had they not managed to acquire defenses against the deadly pathogen.

The Great Disease, however, was not content to leave it at that. It was a patient predator lying in wait for the unwary, around the corner, in a cave, in the rapidly deteriorating air and water. As century followed century, the hardy few survivors began to succumb to a pathogen that had learned to evolve. The count of living creatures again began to drop.

Adding to the misery, the newly infected responded to the disease in a different way from those who went before them. They saw their bodies twisted into grotesque shapes and their senses weakened--eyes did not see as well; ears could barely hear. Though able to survive, they were forced to get by with less reliance on limbs and other vital body parts.

Ironically, to some degree this made them stronger. Refusing to give up, they stared adversity in the face and pushed on however they could, in the process finding new ways to make their deformed bodies work for them.

But it only got worse. The young, both animal and people, passed bodily errors on to their progeny, who then acquired even more distortions and passed these on. The planet seemed determined to punish those who had treated it so poorly for so long.

As before, there were some who managed to acquire immunity to the disease, but always the pathogen evolved to where such immunity was short-lived. It was a cycle that was both terrible and endless, and it continued for thousands more years, each generation coming to expect more misery than the last.

In time a new generation came along, its brain smaller but having more packed within it--as if imitating the computers of old, it squeezed more power into less space. Finally there was a mutation that lent itself to survival instead of further threatening it. The young learned to move objects and even themselves through mental effort alone. This meant they had less need for limbs, which in any case had deteriorated to near uselessness.

But the disease was not yet through. It took time, but eventually it evolved to where it was once again a step ahead of its intended victims.

The cycle of distortions-passed-on-to-offspring resumed, taking much of what remained of the body--only the more powerful brain was spared. A planet-wide depression set in, everyone finally coming to accept that all life here was doomed.

Total extinction would indeed have occurred had it not been for one final change, this more profound than any that preceded it. The people discovered they could retreat from their distorted bodies entirely. With brains evolving ever more profound abilities, they figured out how to transfer all cognitive functions to a pocket of pure energy that could sustain itself by light from the sun alone. In the process they uncovered senses they had never thought possible, an awareness that exceeded by far what their ancient bodies once possessed. It was like escaping from a smoky room to a crystal clear day.

They had found the ultimate defense against biological disease: no biology left to attack.

Unfortunately, there was no way to save the planet's other creatures, and one by one they succumbed to disease until only the pockets of cognitive energy were left. At first these few hundred survivors of a world which once boasted billions felt a form of loneliness. But this passed, helped in part by a growing awareness that there was no real need for co-habiting animals. Certainly not for food; their food was energy, and that came directly from the Sun.

There was another negative they would have to accept. They could think of no way to replicate themselves. There would be no new generation, no more young to nurture. Those who were here now, the relative few who had managed to beat the Great Disease, would be all there ever was. Through the millions of years that followed the abandonment of their corporeal bodies, that sad fact had not changed.

With the pathogen no longer able to find biological beings to infect, it slowly retreated to the sidelines. Today it was said to exist only deep within the ground. The trauma of the Great Disease, however, remained attached to everyone's memory, even after so many years. Only by the narrowest of margins had their species managed to survive.

####

"Our 'ancestors'! I find it awkward to think of them as such, Teri. Such a vast difference between them and us. Awkward also to imagine this planet as once teeming with people."

Teri shared her colleague's feeling for the past, but in her it went deeper than a distant interest. There was a lesson there, one that could be applied to what they were facing now. "Consider, Jak, that it was a disaster caused, not by natural phenomena, but by our own actions and, in some cases, inactions--we did it to ourselves! This is something we must never forget."

A moment of reflection preceded Jak's response. "Well, we are getting off the track. I take your point, even as it disturbs me to do so."

Teri acknowledged the concession but still felt the need to solidify her gains. She knew what needed to be done, and she did not want Jak creating doubts that the others might seize upon. "For us to even approach the careless disregard for reality that brought about the demise of our ancestors, would be criminal. That we are here and they are not points out rather dramatically the cost of responding too slowly."

"And, I suspect you will say, with too much compassion."

"Jak, that is not fair; I feel compassion as you do. I simply warn against undue reliance on it. It too easily justifies delay, and delay was a crucial element in what brought about the Great Disease."

Jak did not reply, aware that Teri's argument would carry more weight with the others in any event. That something needed to be done to protect themselves, he had no doubt, but he still harbored hope that it would not amount to something he would have trouble living with.

####

"Connecting" to the others was seldom done, this because there was rarely the necessity to do so. That it was occurring at all testified to the seriousness which those in contact with the probe felt the situation to be. The process of connecting, however, was easy. All one had to do was magnify one's thoughts to a level where others could pick them up. When the "caller" had everyone's attention, the conference would begin. Though long since having lost the ability to communicate other than mentally, they still referred to this as their "voice."

From somewhere on the planet, Teri received an early but not-unexpected challenge: "Why is this probe so much more alarming than the ones that preceded it?"

"Because it shows a progression that is becoming geometric. The earlier probes were little more than controlled crashes, proving only that their designers were able to reach our planet. The ones to follow, however, demonstrated an ability to not only land safely, but to move along the surface collecting samples of gasses and soil."

"They are also equipped to search for biological presence?"

"Yes, which tells us much about what kind of beings they are."

"It also tells us they do not know what kind of beings we are."

"That is true, and we have taken great care that they remain ignorant of our presence. Teri gave it a few seconds then said, "If I might continue, we have discovered that this new probe is sampling the environment, and this is most disturbing to us. It suggests its creators might come to believe they can survive here. Subsequent probes are likely to contain living beings."

Teri give them a moment to digest this before revealing how she was able to tap into the probe's memory without giving herself away to whom or what was on the other end. "Through this I learned they also have probes in orbit above us, these gathering even more data about our world, including suitable landing spots. The one in front of us communicates to the one in orbit and through that to its creators."

"Do we know the origin of these creators?"

There was emotion behind the question, which Teri appreciated--the others were beginning to understand. "We cannot know for certain, but we suspect the one in orbit communicates with beings living within our own solar system, either another planet or one of the larger moons. We can think of only a few possibilities, though as is proven by our ability to exist where our biological forefathers could not, there could be others."

"But within our solar system."

"As near as we can determine, yes. But more certain is that they are not far from being able to visit us in person. Likely they are in the process of refining this capability even as we speak."

A period of silence followed her comment, all participants occupied by thoughts of what direct contact with an alien being could mean to them and their world.

"We must know more about who these beings are, what harm they might represent to us. You say that, so far at least, they are exercising care regarding biological contamination?"

"Yes. As I have conceded to Jak, this is a good sign."

"Which shows a respect for the environment and for whatever life might exist here."

"That I concede as well."

"Yet you prescribe hostile action against them?"

"Hostile only to the extent necessary to discourage a visit. We do not know who they are or what powers they possess. Are they energy beings like ourselves, or corporeal beings like we once were? Likely the latter, since they test only for biological presence, but we cannot know that for sure. What we can be sure of is that their appearance will almost certainly differ from ours, and as our ancient writings tell us, significant differences in the physical appearance of beings inevitably leads to hostility. In this case, recognizing that these aliens are more technologically advanced than we, it will be hostility directed at us."

The challenge this time came from a different "voice:" "Are we are so shallow that we will not be able to apply intellect above emotion in dealing with physical differences?"

"I would hope we could do so now, but we were embarrassingly ... shallow ... when we were biological beings. Keep in mind, we have had no temptations since our transformation into energy--we are all the same. Of more relevance, however, is how these alien beings will regard us. If they are on a higher level, as we suspect, they will not long treat us as equals."

"Higher level?!"

"In a technical sense. They are able to reach our planet, while we have no ability to reach theirs. We must be realistic, which is to say we have to appreciate that there are only a few hundred of us left on this planet. That is a built-in encouragement for an invader--especially a more powerful one--to consider our world as their own. In particular if, like happened to us in our distant past, they are facing overpopulation and diminishing planet resources."

This time the silence was longer. Teri contented herself to wait, aware that this signaled a willingness to seriously consider what she was saying.

"And you make the assumption, not warranted by their actions thus far, that they will not respond to an invitation to leave should we ask them to do so?"

"Therein lies the danger. We would be gambling that they would agree to leave if asked. For sure we would have no way of forcing them if they chose not to go. We would also have to rely on their not coming back at some future date, this because they have had a change of mind."

The "voice" this time was preceded by a sigh: "So we are to be hostile in the name of avoiding hostility."

"I wish it were other than that, but yes. If we permit these beings to land safely on our planet, it could lead to the end of our long civilization. A hundred million years of harmonious coexistence in an exceptionally challenging environment, all lost to a gamble. I submit we must concern ourselves first and foremost with this, which is to say our survival. We must send a potent message to the owners of this probe that our planet is not one they will ever want to visit. Not now; not ever."

"Why not just let them come. If they are biological, the same pathogen that contaminated our early ancestors will contaminate them."

"That could take years, maybe hundreds of years. How many will come, and what damage might they do to us in the interim? Then you have to consider that those infected here will alert their colleagues at home, who will then be motivated to develop an antibiotic to neutralize the pathogen. We were prevented from doing this because of how quickly it took our people, but they would have all the time they needed to prepare a remedy that will ensure a safe stay on our planet for as long as they like. And, I should add, on their own terms."

This time the sigh was collective. The logic of their colleague was difficult to contest. After all their species had gone through during the Great Disease, and with little feel for how vulnerable their little pockets of energy would be to alien technology, no one was in a mood to gamble.

####

"That they left it in your hands tells me they would rather not know how you plan to go about it."

Teri sensed the disapproval in Jak's voice. "I take no pride in this, Jak. I realize their decision was a difficult one, to sacrifice moral purity in the name of a security that might not even be threatened."

Jak backed off. "Well, I do not envy you the task of convincing an unknown but powerful entity that our world is permanently off-limits."

"I suppose 'convincing' is one way of putting it."

Jak shot his colleague and partner another pulse of inquiry. "I take it you have something in mind? With us having no ability to visit them, whether by probe or in person, we are indeed faced with a challenge."

"Yes, I do have something in mind." Teri outlined her plan, accepting as inevitable the sharp pulse of energy that her colleague was unable to suppress.

####

With solemn devotion to the critical nature of their task, the two scientists set about maneuvering a ball of clay into a form likely to catch the probe's attention. "It must look as we once looked, Jak. We must resist the temptation to add to the image thinking this will frighten them--it is not likely to. Better that they feel comfortable with what they see."

Jak had his doubts, "Ancient recordings speak clearly of what we looked like during our corporeal days, Teri, but we have no idea what the probe's creators will make of what to them will be an alien form."

"That should not be a problem. They will see a shape that does not fit what else they see. In addition, they will detect us."

"What?!"

"A necessary part of our ruse, Jak. Our clay idol will confuse but not necessarily excite. For my idea to work, we need these creatures drooling all over themselves."

When all was ready, they approached the rear of the probe, their sensors having told them there was no detection capability there.

"You are, of course, making the assumption they have the means of detecting us."

"We will know in a few seconds." Teri guided her pocket of energy closer to the probe. Remaining just outside what she believed to be its detection range, she readied herself then projected enough ambient energy to lightly "touch" it.

At first nothing happened, but then, just as Teri was about to try again, this time putting more emphasis into it, the machine drew to a halt, seemingly confused. A number of seconds passed while it consulted its internal programming, but then its long neck slowly turned to where its on-board sensors had detected a pulse of energy.

"Now, Jak!"

Teri remained motionless just outside of detection range, her focus on what the probe would do next--this part was critical. When its forward-facing sensors reached the spot where it had detected the electrical impulse, Jak slipped around its blind side then caused to be placed on its forward sampling platform the clay idol he and Teri had prepared.

As hoped, a sudden weight on its sample platform brought, first another hesitation, then the probe's head humming around in search of an explanation. As it had done with other samples, the detection devices at the end of its long neck moved to where it could fix on the new discovery. The hesitation that followed was proof enough of its confusion--it obviously was not programmed for such an eventuality. It remained that way for more than two hours, neither moving nor humming.

"Could we have broken it?"

"I think it is communicating, Jak. The length of the delay might tell us how far away its masters are."

"Not necessarily. They might be arguing over what instructions to send."

Teri projected a smile. "Yes, this is likely the last thing they expected."

With the wait starting to get to her, Teri touched the probe again.

"You got it to move!"

The reaction was similar to what happened before, a slow rotation of the neck to the area where the pulse of energy was detected, then a short pause to consult programming. The unexpected gift on its sample platform, however, seemed to take priority, for the head soon moved back to inspect it further. On the way, as if finally thinking to check, its sensor-filled head did a 360 degree scan.

"It is attempting to see who left the idol."

"As long as we hold our energy in check, it will detect nothing."

Its scan complete, the probe went back to analyzing the idol with an intensity that was highly satisfying to the two observing scientists. "It would seem they are taking the hook."

"I agree, but will it be enough?"

"I wonder how much time will pass before we know."

Teri sighed. "It will not be an easy wait, but we have done all we know to do. Whoever these creatures are, their fate will be determined by how they react to our little offering."

"Do you suppose their sensors can penetrate the idol?"

"Unlikely. Besides, we added so small a sample that they would be prone to consider it an anomaly. No, Jak, they will not be aware of our deadly pathogen until it is too late to escape its grasp."

####

"What the hell are we seeing here? As impossible as it seems, our probe is being probed."

"No doubt about it; those are electrical pulses! And the pattern is deliberate, not random."

"This can't be valid; something's wrong here!"

"If so, all our sensors have gone south on us at the same time. For God's sake, they're all in agreement. There's a presence there! An intelligent presence!"

"A picture's coming in." The group of surprised and disbelieving scientists crowded around the monitor, the agony on their faces increasingly apparent as more and more of the image appeared on the screen.

"No way! No goddamm way!"

"Look at the shape. Odd, but only an intelligent being could have created that."

"Okay, but why didn't we pick them up on the panoramic scan? Something carried that object to our platform! Where the hell is he?"

"You mean 'it.'"

By then everyone on the floor was alerted to this incredible discovery. The probe was commanded to try again, then again after that, but it continued to report the same thing: no visuals other than the idol. A close examination of their recordings uncovered nothing that would contradict their original conclusions, that here was evidence of intelligent life.

"How can these creatures survive in such an environment?"

"There was a brief hesitation, then: "We need answers!"

Two days passed in hectic but unproductive activity before the powers-that-be admitted to themselves that their probe was not up to providing the answers they desperately sought. "We need to respond in some way. This was a deliberate attempt to communicate."

All they could think to do at the moment was to keep trying and hoping this would demonstrate to the aliens a willingness to respond. At the same time they would fast-track another probe in the making, one with more sophistication.

"This is bigger than anything our world has ever known. It's going to cause an absolute explosion when it gets out!"

"And we have to assume it will get out, sooner rather than later. What we have to do is see that it's presented in the right way.

####

Two days later, the following was released to the press:

NASA announced today that it has approved the design and launching of a sophisticated probe that will travel to Mars and pick up and deliver back to Earth an object offered to us by what scientists can no longer deny are intelligent beings occupying that planet. The importance of retrieving this object is emphasized by the fact that all attempts to communicate with these beings have thus far proved fruitless. It is NASA's hope that the key to such communication will be found within their proffered gift.

The director of NASA, in close coordination with the President of the United States, has declared this to be a prize beyond anything ever experienced by the people of Earth.

More to come.

THE END


© 2012 Noel Carroll

Bio: For years the husband-and-wife team, Noel Carroll*, has published novels and short stories in two genres: thrillers and science fiction. A third genre, humor/satire, permitted them moments of fun and mischief. Although unwilling to abandon fiction, they steadily gravitated toward political commentary, first in opinion editorials and then in the full-length non-fiction work, If You Can Keep It. All their novels, short stories and essays have received highly favorable reviews, many being awarded five-stars. They currently make their home in Ponce Inlet, Florida. "Noel Carroll"'s most recent Aphelion appearance was By Invitation Only, in the June 2009 edition.

E-mail: Noel Carroll

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