Aphelion Issue 256, Volume 24
November 2020
 
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The Harvest

by David Barber




The end of the world would teach people a lesson, Mr Benjamin sometimes told visitors. Other people’s visitors, he never had any himself.

The TV was on in the resident’s lounge of Sunset Homes and two pundits were discussing the aliens.

Mr Benjamin wasn’t paying attention. He was remembering the telescope he’d worked all one summer to buy, and what a disappointment it turned out to be. Saturn with rings like tiny cup-handles, Mars, a red dot. He should have saved up for a 6-inch mirror.

The orbiting spaceship was so big that even a cheap reflector could make out details. What had become of that telescope? he wondered.

He’d perked up since the invasion. He still didn’t speak to Franks and couldn’t remember the names of staff, but Mrs Piper, the Care Manager, noticed the improvement. She thought all the stuff about space had caught his imagination.

Franks liked to talk about the bugs. He said they would be coming for Nurse Flack if she kept on wearing those tight tops. Mr Benjamin was appalled by everything the man said and did, though the nurse didn’t seem to mind.

She said the bugs gave her the creeps.

Of all the aliens sharing their vast craft, the bugs that chittered from our TV screens were apparently the ones most like us. Yet who felt reassured when they announced they were only here for the Harvest?

The TV was showing a blurred montage of wheat fields, vineyards and some foreign crop. Mr Benjamin had put his glasses down somewhere.

President already knows which harvest,” Franks declared.

The expert with the goatee laughed at the idea of interstellar travel just for soya or cereals. As a child, Mr Benjamin had spent summers on his Uncle Theo’s farm and one time he’d famously driven a tractor. He remembered the wheat swaying in waves, stroked by the wind’s invisible hand. He could see it now, clear as day.

The other pundit thought the vast distances involved were exactly why they might need to stock up on CHON.

What the hell’s a chon, Franks wondered.

The science teacher in Mr Benjamin had known that once, but he wouldn’t tell Franks the time of day.

Later, Mrs Piper showed in men with dark suits and earphones.

“That’s him.”

“Always something creepy about him,” said Nurse Flack as they took Benjamin away.

No one explained anything. He insisted he’d done nothing wrong, that they couldn’t do this, that he knew his rights; but it was obvious he must have done, they could, and he had none. In some ways it was a relief.

They flew him to an air force base in Montana, then helicoptered him out to the middle of nowhere. He sat in a quonset hut with a 10th Missile Wing banner above an empty cork-board, marked by the ghosts of long vanished notices. Snow idled past the window.

My name's Dr Havelock,” the young man sitting across the desk said brightly. “I’m with NASA. Agent Pole you know.”

The agent with the brutal haircut had watched him every mile since yesterday without telling him his name.

“Apparently the presence of other people interferes with their scans,” Havelock was saying. “Hence somewhere remote like this.”

“What do you want?” His own voice appalled him; the weedy plaints of an old man.

Havelock and Pole exchanged glances. “As Agent Pole explained before, the aliens are searching the world for people with certain, ah, rare qualities. Something to do with the way their ship works. Some aspect of quantum entanglement.”

Havelock was getting into his stride. “We know they’ve found someone in Nigeria, and Sri Lanka has one. And based on random distribution per head of population, we assume China has. But none here so far. Based on their initial survey, we have great hopes for you.”

Benjamin was aghast. “You want me to go into space at my age?”

Agent Pole interrupted. “Your country does.”

“And in exchange we get knowledge,” said Havelock. “They have a cure for cancer.”

Agent Pole leaned forward. “You remember that nuclear explosion in the China Sea? It was a sub-launched missile. The aliens detonated the warhead before it got a mile high.”

News came and went, Benjamin found. He shrugged.

“We need that technology,” breathed Pole. The young NASA man opened his mouth to argue but the agent touched his earpiece.

“Time to go. Their lander’s coming in, and they want nobody within a dozen miles of you.”

Benjamin started to ask why, but they hurried him outside. Agent Pole insisted on fitting something into his ear.

“What’s happening?” Mr Benjamin wanted to know. Things were moving too fast. “I don’t need a hearing aid.”

“Good luck,” shouted Havelock over the noise of the rotors. The two men boarded the helicopter and it lifted into clouds heavy with snow.

As he stood and shivered, Benjamin found himself thinking about his family. “We haven’t located your daughter yet,” Agent Pole had said when he introduced himself. “You didn’t give us much to go on.”

It felt as if his memory was being flicked through like a pack of cards. He felt the urge to confess everything he’d ever done wrong. He sniffed and wiped his eyes, ashamed for himself.

A silvery teardrop the size of a house fell from the clouds and came to rest, bobbing silently a foot above the ground. The aliens stooped over him on too many legs, their internal organs pumping and fluttering inside transparent shells. They weren’t like bugs at all, and they stank of old damp and rot.

the harvest has been poor

A gadget that spoke English trailed above them like a child’s balloon.

but your consciousness has the right... it dissolved into white noise… to entangle with the mayaship’s quantum state to help it cross time and space

“Don’t go with them,” Agent Pole shouted in his ear. “We’re on our way back.”

in return your tribe benefits from items of knowledge

“Do people ever say no?”

There was a pause.

your leaders said that would not be a problem

They closed around him, smelling like a mushroom cellar, and began shepherding him towards their quicksilver droplet.

Another burst of noise in his earpiece. “ETA two minutes.”

He threw the thing away. “Something’s wrong.”

a rival tribe wants the immune response we use to remotely detonate nuclear devices

“So now we have to have it.” He could hear a helicopter. “Couldn’t you offer everybody something harmless instead?”

you are pessimistic about the future of your world

He began to sense the strangeness of what it was to be them, and their indifference to events here. Time and space were infinite and the mayaship would never return. It was like making deals with bubbles.

Perhaps people wouldn’t trigger each other’s arsenals; perhaps it was the end of nuclear weapons; perhaps wars would rage in the old-fashioned ways. He seemed to be looking at human life from a great distance, through the wrong end of a cheap telescope.

He watched the crude whirly thing hurrying in to land, and if he tried, he could almost identify its purpose.

“You’ve done something to my mind,” concluded Mr Benjamin, everything becoming clear now.

some improvements were necessary

Mr Benjamin debated whether he should be angry, but no one asks the wheat; the vine is not consulted; the opinion of the harvest carries no weight.



THE END


2020 David Barber

Bio: David Barber lives anonymously in the UK. His ambition is to write.

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