When Joe Came Back
by Andre Infante
I remember where I was when I first saw it. It was out at the top of Dawson’s cliff, over the lake - that big sheet of shale, smooth and warm and just about as nice a makeout spot as you could hope to find on God’s good Earth. It was a bit of a drive to get up, but worth it. I was up there with some girl, Judy Lawper, I suspect, and we’d been doing what you do on a good makeout spot on a Saturday evening. We were lying there afterwards, and the sun was setting, and we were above the light pollution from the city, so you could see the stars. It was quiet but for the surf, a long, long way down.
It was kind of peaceful, and the stars were so bright. In my memories, the stars always shine more brightly from there than from any other point you care to name. Judy was smoking something, which stunk, but I didn’t much mind. It was very peaceful, very quiet, and without much to bother anyone. I was just about to doze off to sleep, and then I saw it. The moon was rising as the sun went down, and it was very low in the sky, big and orange. And, there, beside the moon, it was. I couldn’t see it well from there, of course, but I could see it alright. It was lit up like a white coal in the dark. It was the size of a pencil eraser against the horizon.
Now, I’m not much of an astronomer, anymore, but I went through a phase when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I still knew enough to know that something was very amiss. Actually, my first thought was that it was a big asteroid come to nuke us back to the stone age. I was on my feet, and had my pants half-on before I realized that, first, it wasn’t getting any bigger and, second, that if it were an asteroid, dying with my pants on wouldn’t make a whole hell of a lot of difference. I kind of gave Judy a scare jumping up like that,
“Lee? Lee, what’s going on?”
“Do you see that light on the horizon?”
“Do you know what it is?”
“Neither do I.”
She didn’t get what I was so worked up about, and she wouldn’t go, so I left her up there. I’m not proud of that, but I’d thought about it enough by then to know that this was going to be one of those things where the rest of your life is defined by where you were at that moment. So I climbed down the shelf to the car, put it in gear, and hauled ass into town. By the time I got out, things were still pretty quiet. There were some people standing out in the street just staring at it, but I guess the rest hadn’t really realized that something was up, yet. Kind of funny, really. The thing must’ve been visible to half the earth by then, and most people still found out about it from the TV.
I drove home, and ran inside. Mom and Dad were watching some game show, so I told them to turn on the news, and to hurry, it was important. Then I ran upstairs, and ransacked my room. Took me a good two or three minutes to find it, in the bin under the dresser. I took the telescope, went back through the living room. There was some astronomer on the TV talking about it. Didn’t have a clue what was going on, real mellow ‘no cause for alarm’ stuff. I went out into the yard, slung the telescope over my shoulder, and climbed up the hedge onto the roof. I spotted it, wiped dust off the lense, got it into focus, and looked at It.
I truly wish I could explain to you what It looked like. If there were some words that could convey the sheer scale of the thing, the depth and complexity – If you’ve ever been to a big city, you know a little of what I’m talking about. That feeling you get when you look up, and you can barely see the sky between the monoliths of steel and glass. That sense of incomprehensible scale. I was a lot like that, only many times more so. It was roughly spherical in overall shape, and its design was certainly not natural. There was a sense of some vastly complex organizational schema , that would become clear if only you could work it out. It was – No. There aren’t words for the shape of thing. Poets have tried since many times and failed.
I pulled away, and I suddenly had an odd epiphany. This was what they meant by history. This was the moment by which history would judge us. This was the night from that would stand in the background of every other event. This would be the reference point people would count from fifty years from now. This would be the story people told their grandkids. More people were filing out into the street, white half-moon faces illuminated by the light in the sky. No one was talking. A few people were crying. A few people were laughing. Mostly, though, they were just standing there, in silence, watching .
Inside, the phone was ringing. It had been ringing for a while. I left the telescope behind, and climbed down. I went inside. My parents were sitting in front of the TV, looking at a picture of the thing under high magnification. It wasn’t much less terrifying and awe-inspiring than it had been in my telescope. My mother’s face was tight and still and she wasn’t blinking. My father had lit a pipe, and was staring out the window. I remembered that he’d quit smoking seven months ago. I wondered if everyone was reacting like this. What time was it in Washington DC? Were they dragging the president out of bed? What was the expression on his face? What were we going to do?
The phone was still ringing. I walked into the kitchen and picked it up. Silence for the space of a breath, then
“Lee? Go outside right now and look at the moon.”
“I’ve seen it, Joe. I just took a look at it through my telescope.”
“No shit. What’d it look like?”
“There’s a picture on the TV, go take a look.”
“Fuck that, man. I’ll be over in five minutes. Just, real quick, is it natural.”
I took a deep breath.
“No. No, it’s definitely not natural.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I think so.”
“Give me three minutes.”
His end of the line clicked off. I turned and squinted out the window towards his house. I saw a dim figure running down the street at considerable speed, holding its hat on with one hand. It vaulted over a car parked in the street and turned towards my house. I closed the blinds and went back into the living room.
The President was giving a press conference. His suit wasn’t pressed, and he looked tired.
“..no aggressive action unless every other option has been eliminated. If there is life aboard the object, and they are listening to this, let me address you directly. I don’t have a speech prepared, so I’m just going to say to you what I would say to any unexpected guest: welcome. We-“
It wasn’t live. A new anchor cut in.
“No communication has been received from the object as of yet. So far, the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and China have all pledged to take no aggressive action unless fired upon. International talks are still under way with North Korea and..."
Joe barged through the front door, checked the kitchen, and came into the living room. He sidled up to me, nodded nervously at my parents and asked, with an oddly quiet reverence,
“Where’s the telescope?”
“On the roof. Come on.”
I lead him out.
“How big is it, would you say?”
“Hell, I dunno. Big. Damn big. Miles and miles across. In front of the moon, probably a tenth of its disk. Big.”
He nodded, and I lead him to the telescope. He looked inside. When he came away, he had a big, shit-eating grin on his face.
“Lee, buddy, this is it. This is… this is the biggest thing in the history of the human race. I mean, this…”
He trailed off, shaking his head. He lifted his hat and scratched under it.
“Want to make popcorn?”
I started to scoot towards the edge of the roof, Then, all of a sudden, the lights went out. All of them. It was like someone had flipped a switch, and every house light in sight suddenly went dark. Simultaneously, the distant chatter of the TV cut out. I froze. I scanned for any sign of artificial light. Nothing but moonlight, for as far as I could see.
I looked around, and found Joe, a silhouette against the stars. Without light pollution, they were amazingly crisp and bright, like dew under a neutron bomb.
“Well that’s weird.”
“What do you think it is?”
“Well, it could very well be that someone at a power station panicked and fucked up.”
He didn’t sound terribly confident.
“Hey, Joe, was that car moving?”
“The red one. I thought it was moving before the lights went out.”
“I don’t know. Say, you got a digital watch for Christmas, right?”
“Yeah. I’ve got it right here.”
There was a brief silence and then a scratch and a point of light. He’d lit his lighter. I held up my wrist for inspection, and we both looked at it under the lighter’s glow. The display was totally blank.
“Was it working this morning?”
“I think so. Yes. I just put new batteries in three days ago.”
He looked troubled. The lighter flicked out.
“Listen, Lee, I don’t want to worry you. I really wish I didn’t know this, but the only thing I’ve ever heard of that could do that is the electromagnetic pulse of a thermonuclear bomb.”
I looked at him.
“I don’t see a mushroom cloud.”
“Yeah, I’ve been looking for one. I don’t see anything like that. I think there might be a way of making a pulse without a bomb. And if we don’t know how, they probably do. Lee, I think we might be under fire.”
“Sheeit. You think?”
“I don’t know. It could just be this town. But, if they wanted to, it’d make sense. Set off a big enough pulse, and you could fry everything. Every microwave, every car, every phone-“ he paused “-every nuclear silo.”
The phone began to ring.
“Well, we should find out if it’s worldwide. If it’s just here, it might be an accident. Let me go-“
“Nah, there’s no way to find out for sure. No TV, can’t just call them. Hell, we couldn’t even drive out to Aiden. No cars.”
The phone was still ringing. I started to say something, and then suddenly something clicked in my brain. I made eye contact with Joe. Four seconds later, we were scrambling down the hedge for the house. By the time we got inside, my mom had already picked up the phone. She looked very pale. She turned to us.
“They want to talk to Joe.”
She handed the phone to them. He held it up to his ear.
His facial expression didn’t change. After a few seconds, he said
Then he set the phone down. He looked at me.
“Long story short, they come in peace.”
I blinked. He kept talking.
“Look, Lee, I have to go. Feed my fish, okay?”
“I’d explain more if I could, but I really have to hurry.”
“What do you-“
But he was already gone. Jogging, running really, away from the house. He grabbed a car at random. As soon as he got in, the headlights turned on. The engine hummed to life, and the car drove away. I chased it out of town for four or five blocks before I couldn’t run anymore, and the car was vanishing around the corner.
I stood on the corner for a long time, trying to figure out what to do next. The police were probably freaking out like everybody else. I just just about decided to go hiking after him when, quietly, the lights came back on behind me.
I checked my watch under a streetlight. It was working again.
I ran back to my house, got into my car, and drove up the mountain. I passed Judy Lawper on the way up, still hiking down, and she threw something at me. Can't say I blame her, but I didn't have the time to stop and try to patch things up. I kept driving, down the increasingly narrow road.
Towards the end the road became dirt, and the car began to rock wildly. Eventually, though, I made it to the clearing at the top of the hill. The car that Joe had taken was parked there. The door was open. The ground was covered with - it wasn't snow. It looked like it, but it wasn't. I picked up a handful, and it squeaked like baby powder.
I followed the footprints in the dust towards the center of the clearing. My feet kicked up clouds of the stuff with every step. At a certain point, the footsteps stopped. There was nothing for them to go to. They were just gone. The ground at that spot was blazing heat. There was a flat plane of cooling glass, with hot rocks sitting in it, glowing like coals. Off to the side, in the white powder, were a pile of Joe's clothing, and a note written in magic marker on his shirt saying not to worry. His hat was sitting on top.
Now what the hell can you do after something like that? I went home. Got into my car and drove down the cliff. Even offered Judy a ride the rest of the way, but she threw another rock at me, so I kept going. When I got home, I climbed up the stairs and went to bed.
Let's just skip the next two months, because they aren't really very interesting. I'll just go over the good parts:
As it turns out, Joe wasn't an isolated incident. About a thousand people had vanished, from all over the world. Always the same story, always a small town, always the blackout, always the phone call (or sometimes a radio or television) always the powder and the footsteps. Always the scorch mark. There were no regularities between them, just a random hodgepodge of ages, races, and sexes.
The thing in the sky continued to completely fail to communicate. Radio messages were fired. Lasers with encoded messages. Pictures engraved in titanium were shot at it. Four separate probes from three countries were launched to try to study it. All of them abruptly ceased to operate when they got within five hundred kilometers of the probe. The one (Russian) manned mission went completely dark when it crossed this threshold, and lost all electronic systems. When its eliptical orbit took it out of this range, it turned back on again, much to the relief of the cosmonauts. The thing hung overhead in geosyncronous orbit, an inscrutable, terrifying omen. It seemed inevitable that someone would nuke it, which China did. Well, tried to. They say no plant will ever grow again anywhere within a hundred miles of the launch silo.
Aside from that one show of force, and the taken people, the thing refused to communicate. At all. There was some talk that I recall more vividly in retrospect, about how it might not be able to talk to us, simply because it was so complex. The scientist on the television said something along the lines of 'imagine trying to explain your intentions to a bacterium.' He then started harping his book, but the phrase stuck with me.
Back at home, life went on. It tends to do that. Joe's father had a small nervous breakdown. His mother seemed oddly proud. I fed his fish. One of them got sick, but then got better. School started. Judy forgave me. We dated for about a month, and then broke up. Then, one day, I came home, and Joe was sitting on my bedroom floor. Well, sitting, isn't exactly the right word. It was closer to 'collapsed in a sitting position.' He was babbling, raving out of his head, lots of math terms. I drove him to the hospital, and one of the nurses had the presence of mind to get a tape recorder and copy down some of what he was saying. I'm told that those recordings are in the process of revolutionizing modern number theory. His parents never left his side.
He came out off it slowly. The math tapered off, and he was cataontic for about a week. Then, still, barely lucid. He could recognize you, but he'd have to try two or three times to get the right language when he was trying to talk to you. He had a really hard time concentrating. He'd be talking to you, and you'd mention an attractive nurse, and he'd go off on sex drive, and in five minutes, he'd be giving the fundamental equations describing pleasure behavior in a complex system.
He got better, though. About a month after Joe came back, they called me and said he was lucid, and wanted to see me. When I went into his room, he looked pale, but seemed to be dumber, less aware of his surroundings, and infinitely more ignorant. In short: Joe. He grinned at me, and I sat down.
"Hey, Joe, feeling better?"
"A lot worse, actually - but more like me. I'm starting to learn what's me and what isn't, but it's hard. The stuff that's not me is better than the stuff that is. It's - it's evil, what I'm doing. Surviving is evil, when I could be more. Do you understand?"
"Sorry. Look, anyway, it's hard to stay like this. It's like looking at a word and trying not to read it. But, listen, I need to try to explain something, and I can't do it like that. The Alien. It's not like us."
"No, I mean, we evolved from mammals. They just skipped that step, and had the intelligence arms race when they were slime molds. Their whole species was a single mind, even before it discovered computers. They have literally never been exposed to the concept of a separate consciousness."
"Wait, that can't be right. I mean, it seems like they'd figure that out pretty quickly once they got out into the real world."
He shook his head.
"Lee, listen to me. They've run into over a million technologically sophisticated species since they developed space travel, and every single one of them has been like them. Of all the intelligent life they've met, we're the only ones with separate minds."
I stopped, the continued half-heartedly.
"Still, meeting other minds would -"
"Lee, stop thinking like an ape for a minute and listen to me. They don't talk like we talk. They can't even imagine it. They communicate by merging, by becoming one with whatever they encounter. What's floating above us is node of a hive mind that encompasses every species it has even encountered. Then they found us, and we blew their giant alien mind. They didn't try to talk to us, because it simply didn't occur to them. They got a human with a cell phone to do it for them. They just could not figure us out. They knew we were intelligent, but we weren't a hive. Eventually, they just grabbed a bunch of people and tried to merge with them in the hope that we would sort it out."
"And that's what happened to you?"
He gave me a look.
"What do you think happens when you try to download a civilization's worth of data into a human brain?"
"I died. They killed me, Lee. Then they rebuilt me from their logs, and they tried again. And again. They killed me a lot. They did the best they could, but I still only got a tenth of a percent, and it still nearly fried my brain. The others have got the rest. They should be coming out of it soon."
"So what's the plan?"
"Plan? Oh, you know, we're going to combine our knowledge and become the greatest force of good on Earth: Captain Planet."
He grinned, and shook his head. I chuckled, and relaxed. He sobered up a little.
"But, no, Lee, in all seriousness, there is no plan. They didn't send me back because they figured it out. They sent me back because they gave up. They're leaving, and they gave me a message to give to you, on their behalf."
"Wait, they're leaving?"
"Do you want to hear the message, or not?"
"Um, okay, go."
"The closest translation I can think of is 'We apologize for the inconvenience.'"
I shook my head. Then, something occured to me.
"Hey, you and the others are still super-geniuses, right?"
"Something like that."
"So you can revolutionize our primitive Earth science with your wild alien ways?"
"It won't do as much good as you'd think."
"Well, for starters, because it'll take about four hundred years of hard work to lay a rigorous groundwork to explain like 90% of the stuff I know. And that's just math. For instance, have you ever heard of complex potential surfaces?"
"Don't feel bad, nobody else on the planet has either. You see what I mean? It'd take ten years of hard work, one on one to explain that concept to you, and it's absolutely fundamental to the way physics actually works. And don't count on me curing cancer either, because all my medical knowledge is about aliens. This is going to take a really, really long time."
I shrugged, and fished a shopping bag out from under the desk. I pulled his hat out from it, beat some power off of it, and threw it to him. He put it on.
"Sounds like fun. When do we get started?"
I needed a break from the Philidelphia story, so here's a standard Thursday story, for your enjoyment. For those of you who are fans of The Man From Philidelphia, it will resume regular updates next week.
Buy me a cup of tea!