by R. M. Hamrick
Not until the ship emerged from Saturn’s shadow did any of the billions of dollars in detection and imaging equipment pick up its presence. By then, even amateur astronomers could bluff a sighting. A ship—not Earthling-made—had entered our solar system. Finding we were not alone in the universe did not deter us from believing we were the center of it. As such, the ship had to be on its way to us. Where else would it be going? And in case anyone might think otherwise, we named the approaching mass of chaos and fear, the Harbinger.
We talked about the approaching ship until we couldn’t remember talking about anything else. When the Harbinger entered the Earth’s atmosphere, everyone had already paid up and prayed up. We watched from bunkers, over surgical masks and through anti-radiation eyewear. Like a New Year’s Eve countdown to doom, each country waited their turn underneath the massive, dark shadow, wondering if their combination of climate, population, longitude, whatever would be found most optimal for the alien’s equivalence of troop deployment, fire reign, or terraforming. They’d be the first. Squashed like ants; buried as remnants of an old ecosystem where humans once ruled over Earth’s surface. Through it all, every attempt of communication—radio waves, electromagnetic pulses, human chanting, and poster signs—remained unreciprocated.
The first two or three orbits were horrifying. By the eighth day, officials were urging citizens to ignore it. Imagine that! Ignore a giant ship flying over your school or gym. They also requested people stop shooting fireworks and homemade rockets toward it. “You may inadvertently start an interstellar war.” This only encouraged people to buy more fireworks. The adults didn’t ignore it—couldn’t ignore it. It wasn’t just the daily disruption of sunlight and signal transmissions. There was something disturbing about its steady gaze on the planet. It was a reminder that the beings on Earth weren’t the only beings in the universe. There were others, more technologically advanced and seemingly capable of visiting Earth, and yet they refused to interact in any sort of meaningful way. I couldn’t really understand the fuss. I accepted it the same as I accepted mass on Sunday or spelling bees – absurd, useless, and beyond my control.
On the anniversary of the Harbinger’s arrival—a year’s worth of rotations—China fired a nuclear bomb against the ship, if only to demonstrate it was not a Chinese spy ship as rumored. No one was surprised by this act of aggression, in fact, they welcomed it. It was almost as if the humans needed the interaction. They were no longer content for it to just be. They would fight it, befriend it, or charge it rent, but it couldn’t just be up there anymore. The explosion tore a chunk from the ship’s hull which fell into the ocean. There was no response from the ship. Laser beams didn’t cut through the major buildings of Beijing. There were no little green repairmen. Nothing. The Harbinger didn’t even change course. This seemed to confirm with most citizens the ship was empty, and encouraged others to want to further destroy it. If no one was inside—for whatever reason—there was no harm in dropping it from the sky and forgetting it was ever there. However, that latter attitude was overridden by the ideology that, of course, ships carry treasure. With the fear of retribution gone, now all countries capable of access—and some that weren’t—were ready to lay claim of the ship and any technologies or riches which lay inside.
It was an election year, so the United States was definitely the first up there exploring. Military powers kept guard of the airspace, and despite being a relic of its former self, NASA headed the mission. As such, the whole thing was livestreamed through the crew’s body cameras. I sat in front of the media center and soaked in all 86-inches of available data in its densely populated pixels. Surely, something bad must have happened to the inhabitants of the ship, and no one could really anticipate what might happen next. An ongoing ticker at the bottom of the screen declared it was a live feed and the program could not guarantee the absence of terrifying images, graphic violence, nudity, or explicit language. At my age, I hoped for the first two—in combination.
The interior was—there was no other way to put it—alien. I expected the ship to be in mundane, uniform colors, like all the US military and government installations which seemed to prefer olive drab, dark gray, or gray. There was nothing uniform about the place. The interior of the ship looked more organic than anything. It curved and whimsy-flowed. Colors graduated across many things; and many things seemed to signal a different color dependent on the angle. The lighting that the crew brought played tricks. On more than one occasion, someone walked into a wall or an object, unable to correctly decipher depth within the alien landscape. If there were any controls or switches, they were kept out of the audience’s view. Alas, if it was anything like Earth’s technology, it seemed both OFF and its bones hidden. If the ship itself was a living being, it seemed dead or in a deep hibernation.
After many years and much posturing, the Harbinger was declared and treated like the International Space Station of so long ago (before it was fought over and destroyed). The unique location provided an opportunity for many international and long-term studies—mostly involving the atmosphere and weather. Low-profile measuring devices and stations were bolted to the exterior, with some minor care to prevent orbital decay. These studies were largely funded by venue fees as the elite began hosting extravagant parties, two hundred-fifty miles above the Earth. That is before it became kitsch. Someone got permission to film a movie there, and thus the first publicly distributed pornographic film in space was produced. In my lifetime, the ship’s visitors shifted from celebrities and ambitious CEOs to basically anybody with a Radio Shack premium membership. As such, graffiti found its way on the ship’s hull. Layers of paint caked the alien surface until it could be mistaken for a street alley on Earth. All in all, it resembled a floating trash pile over any sort of sterile space station.
And that’s unfortunately how it looked when the ship builders arrived.
When the second ship dropped into the same orbit as the Harbinger, we didn’t even recognize it as familiar. It had been fifty years since the Harbinger, now more commonly known as the Heap, had looked so smooth and so foreign. The Heap had an international flair, for sure, but nothing like this. This was alien. We had only realized the connection when our hopes were immediately dashed. This ship wasn’t empty.
Never had we prior, but now instantly we could see the Harbinger through an alien’s perspective. They’d arrived to find their fellow ship busted open—void of crew and contents—obscenely decorated to warn anyone who might venture to Earth. Some wisecrack posted a supercut of an ancient television show, purporting it was a message from the aliens. “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do!” Explanation, we did not have. When previously we had pressed to communicate, now we remained silent.
The alien spacecraft landed in the middle of Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport shortly after entering Earth’s atmosphere. From above, perhaps the busiest airport seemed the most suitable location for their arrival. Or, perhaps the most disruptive. Within days, the finest linguists, biological scientists, and ambassadors of a hundred nations had filed into airport to greet the newcomers who had yet to show their faces—if they had any.
The first meeting was broadcast with the same disclaimer ticker underneath. This time the warnings of violence seemed much more promising, and I was much less excited for them. The silvery ship glistened without any help of the sun, and a portion of the ship’s hull turned a pinkish hue as seven beings passed through it and floated serenely to the ground. The shortest of the beings was possibly six-feet tall. The tallest, eight. They seemed mostly limbs. Their two arms were much longer than our two, proportionally. Shoulders, torso, waist were minimal. Their skin was somewhat peach colored but with a disturbing yellow-green undertone. We found out later it wasn’t their skin at all but rather full-body suits that allowed them to breathe our atmosphere and interact more successfully with us. It didn’t seem as if their long slender necks should be able to support their large heads which were most strange. No mouth. No nose. What appeared to be a mask covered the top half of their head—which had some sort of flat tusk—and where their eyes would be had many small holes which made them appear insect-like.
If the lack of mouth was not obvious, it quickly became clear they did not have anything similar to our vocal cords. They could not mimic our language. We could not perceive theirs. However, they had limbs and fingers—not necessarily hands—and soon there were at least some general gestures which were understood. Pointing was one of them. One particularly insightful nation—it wasn’t us—brought small-scale models of the ships and of our solar system (made of Styrofoam no less). The chosen three human communicators pointed to the Earth miniature, then to themselves and gestured to the planet they lived upon. They spun one of the ships around Earth and pointed to the one behind the aliens. The aliens examined the offered props closely. One of the alien beings seemed to gesture that the sub-fins on the model were not exactly the same as the ones on their ship.
Eventually, it seemed the aliens understood. They took the second model ship, spun it around Earth like the humans did, then pointed to the western sky, where presumedly the larger scale counterpart orbited as it had done for half of a century. They wanted to know about the Heap. The human communicators were delighted to be making progress. With the model returned to them, they opened it along its seams, showed there was nothing inside, and shrugged. They pointed to the alien beings and shrugged again. The aliens collectively took one step back. I wondered whether they were upset their ship arrived without their comrades, upset at or all, or if they thought we had split the ship apart, and likewise, its crew—possibly to see what was inside.
More pointing. Fervent pointing. There were no facial expressions to read. There were hardly faces. There was no such thing as a universal language. I could see our human ambassadors were largely ignoring the motions and gestures of the visitors, determined that the aliens understand them and that we had meant no harm when we blew up their ship and left it to float around our planet like a carcass. Intense animation from both sides came to a head, before breaking down entirely. One of the aliens tore open the Earth model, and all seven of them raised their arms in their best imitation of the human-shoulder shrug.
The Heap arrived with some of its larger human augments missing, zipping along a new trajectory. In the commotion, the aliens disappeared back into their sleek ship. For good measure, the committee-controlled military was able to fire a few shots as the ship took off alongside the Heap, sending everyone on the ground fleeing for their lives. Reports started in. The ships initiated an orbit along the equatorial line, and some thought they might actually split the Earth in two when the assault began. The ships had powerful weapons, but still minor compared to the planet they attacked. The splitting of Earth was, of course, absurd. The humans were on the surface of the planet, not within.
Movie re-watcher, board game enthusiast, and beer buff, R. M. Hamrick lives in central Florida, USA where alligators and flesh-eating bacteria roam freely. Her published works include the zombie-filled Chasing series and the wacky space opera series, Atalan Adventures. Follow her at Patreon.com/rmhamrick.
“Harbinger” and its alternate future is centered around the arrival of a harmless derelict, what we might make of it, and in the end, what that might make of us. It’s inspired by the quiet ship with more questions than answers in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and the young narration of skyful wonders in China Miéville’s Polynia.