He had imagined he might permanently retire to scholarly ivory towered seclusion. Never to re-emerge into the arc light again. Right now, illuminated by television camera glare, he had the eyes of the whole world trained on him. Or at least they were trained on the reflective mirror tint of the limousine in which he was presently being conveyed. Responsibility for securing the whole damn planet sat squarely on his stooped shoulders. For at long last, First Contact had occurred. But contact hadn’t entailed communication. Which is where he came in. Linguistic Johnny on the spot, seeing as First Contact had been not in populous Mumbai, nor Ouagadougou, but here in the Mojave Desert. Just where Hollywood and other conspiracy plotters always said it would happen.
His earpiece was abuzz with relayed information. No material evidence of a ship had been located. Radiation levels hadn’t spiked. However, when it came to the physical form of the out-of-towners themselves, his witness-informants’ descriptive powers failed them. Hardly surprising, since they were technicians, scientists and soldiers. Apparently they also found it problematic substantiating exactly how many of the cosmic visitors were present. And while their precise demeanour was impossible to gauge, there had been no overtly hostile display.
He could hear the human throb outside as presumably his car was drawing near. The feverish babble of those supposed to be the most disciplined of all our species, squawking like excitable kids. Armed to the teeth, but not with honed speech. Whereas all he had to unholster were words. His earpiece squealed that the sojourners did not outwardly wield instruments, tools or weapons. Nor were they emitting any sounds.
Now he was impatient to be out of the car to encounter them for himself. And, not a little nervous at the prospect too. He would be the vanguard of humanity. An experience he’d had many times before, in his siege negotiator days. But he couldn’t shake the notion that he himself could very easily become the hostage and the entire race plunged into a state of siege, if things turned dark. All the manuals he’d written had nothing to offer about this circumstance.
Finally the car glided to a cushioned halt. He opened the door and having languished in the darkness of the car’s interior, was instantly dazzled by the desert sun. Still blinded by the fulgurant after-image on his retinas, he scrambled out on to the soft sand. A hand gripped his shoulder, steadying him, before shepherding him away from the car. His bowed eyes began refocusing, discerning the distinctive tracks of a sidewinder snake in the sand. He was fully aware that somewhere above him was another with the same nomenclature, bearing far more toxic payload. One branded with the encircled white star of the US Air Force.
He dismissed donning his sunglasses, deeming it important that the creatures should be able to see his eyes. Indeed he needed all his senses to be unimpeded. (By now the expectant crowd had demonstrated the good grace to have fallen silent). So he removed his earpiece and proffered it towards his military minder.
The man stopped, unsure whether to accept the discard. The earpiece plopped towards the sand and reflexively the man jack-knifed his body trying to catch it. Shaken free of his chaperon, he marched forward and raised his eyes. And then he saw- it? Them? The heat shimmer was making it hard to establish clarity of vision.
Certainly they did seem to lack for limbs. No distinct head separate from torso. Sense organs of eyes, ears and mouth, all ostensibly absent. They approximated geometric shapes more than the asymmetries of a corporeal anatomy. Colouration was that of the sand. Unlikely to be a coincidence. Either their bodies channelled light so as to mirror their surroundings, or they possessed chameleon-like attributes inside their substance. As he neared them, he could see that their tissue seemed to be a membrane. No, not that so much as a plasma. For the surface waves were gently shifting and roiling. Was that indicative of breath? Or scrutiny and processing of data perhaps?
These figures seemed strangely foregrounded, distorting the spatial perspective around and behind them. As if their materiality sucked in and bunched the light and space in their vicinity. He stopped in his tracks, adjudging that ideal distance in face-to-face hostage negotiations. That which neither inflamed nor showed vulnerability. Suddenly, in these novel circumstances, such a calculation seemed entirely arbitrary. What was intimate or personal space to such an entity?
He noticed that it was hard to pinpoint exactly where the plasma bodies ended. For they didn’t seem to have a skin or a frame fixing their form. The tides could flow to the extremities and then defy any optical appreciation of what became of them. Maybe they curved round to the rear. But then it struck him that the organisms seemed to have no thickness. No depth. No volume, which rendered void his plasmatic sea conceptualisation. It was almost as if they were two-dimensional, breadth and height only. He wondered if this might be due to gravity, but then wouldn’t they be more likely to be lying flat on the sand? His scanty grasp of physics wasn’t up to the task.
The plasma continued its sedate convolutions. He tried to descry a tidal regularity but couldn’t. He wondered if this flux was their mode of locomotion. The relentless desertscape meant he had no external reference points to plot their position against. There were neither impressions nor churning of the sand beneath. So either it was actually hovering very close to the ground, or it was of minimal mass. A minimal mass that could yet distort the space around it.
A strange feeling colonised his head. It wasn’t the beating sun, nor the strangeness of the occasion, nor the hungry human eyes devouring him behind his back. He couldn’t define nor explain it, but he intuited it to originate from the creature. It wasn’t invasive, in that he didn’t feel menaced by the sensation. In all likelihood, it was just scrutiny, after all, it was what he was trying to render in turn to his non-adversarial adversary here.
Those crucial first words. Epic words on behalf of a species. Chosen for a people who had just discovered they were no longer the Universe’s sole Chosen. His mouth was dry. Every salutation he rolled over in his mind, sounded the most trite of clichés. Curse Hollywood for insouciantly denuding this portentous moment with its flippancy. For all his facility with language, there was really no other way of broaching with the guests. A welcome was a welcome was a welcome. Naturally in the name of peace. But piece was a homonym. And a host could as much throw a fusillade as a welcome. His language needed to be as stripped down and unidiomatic as possible.
He weighed the words on his tongue. They felt flimsy, like wisps of sand borne on the breeze. He feared they would just be perceived as eructations of noise. For his language had no inherent link between its sounds and the meaning they conveyed. Therefore words on their own would likely be profitless, unless the beings had some method of translation. But to have that properly pre-programmed, could only mean that Earth had long been under their observation. In which case, if the planet had been remotely monitored, why was it now being visited in the flesh? He resolved that any motions he might make to elucidate his words, would have to be done carefully. No sharp movements that might alarm or startle his interlocutors. Just like with siege situations.
“Planet Earth welcomes you”. Accompanied by unfurling hands out towards the aliens, unavoidably equivocal as either gift or supplication. Then a sweep out to the serried ranks behind sawhorses, before a graceful ascension up towards the skies. The being opposite him remained unreadable. Inscrutable. It occurred to him that his gestures relied on directionality. Perhaps that simply lay beyond the ken of these creatures, who seemed unpossessed of any kind of vectoring. Both in their indeterminate shape and their lack of a third dimension. Word followed word, tumbling from his mouth. Not prompting a shared cognizance themselves of course, but hopefully the intent behind them. An interpretation of his tone or inflection. As household dogs are said to assimilate.
He tried American Sign Language. The locution of those without access to the spoken word. But again he sensed that for creatures without any appendages of their own, one part of his own body rubbing up against another referenced no meaning. A loose-limbed, hermetic circularity. When he cupped his hands over his heart, how could they know what lay beneath? That the gesture was meant to convey sincerity. Truth. Or love. Were they imbued with any of those concepts, or even a heart of their own? Perhaps their scanning senses could zero in on the heart’s electrical pulses. And thereby apprehend that it was the propulsive core of human beings. He wondered if the plasma waves constituted the emotional flow of the creatures. It further struck him that these might not in fact be the creatures themselves. Merely their surveillance instruments. He needed to be sure he was conversing with the organ grinder rather than the monkey.
Each linguistic avenue turned cul-de-sac. He was bereft of ideas. Empty. What was he to do, simply shrug, turn on his heel and walk away? There was no obvious mode of bringing down the curtain on a show that had never even overtured. He was perspiring copiously. Respiring. Suspiring. Expiring. But nought was transpiring. Language had failed to bridge the chasm of alienness. He removed the handkerchief from his breast pocket and mopped his brow. Still breaking down each motion into its component parts. It probably no longer mattered if his eyes were veiled by the cloth, but all the same he didn’t want jagged motions to discompose the aliens. If that were even possible.
The handkerchief was ringing wet. He stood there uselessly, clutching the white symbol of abject surrender. Then he started sliding out of his jacket. Should he fold it? Such petty propriety amused him. The memory of his minder halting to catch the jettisoned government property flittered inside his head. He lay the jacket on the sand. Next he unknotted his tie, a complex series of actions that was hard to keep steady and deliberate. He let the tie waft down to the ground, like a sinuous snake. Then he removed his trousers, which proved yet harder to achieve without succumbing to a hopping jerkiness. Getting them over his shoes proved a real trial, but he suspected the sand was too hot for him to brave barefoot. His underwear followed. The watching crowd finally broke their bated silence. A mixture of disbelieving inhalations and giggles.
Fully stripped, he commenced executing a measured revolution. He wanted to show them his angles, contours and crevices. To reveal them his depth, the heft of his body in the sand. On completing his circle, he again stared hard at the beast. (No, avoid all value judgements). Still no surge nor increased quiver in the plasma. Yet he had provoked a response. The beast and they really were beastly for this, turned a quarter revolution of its own and disappeared. Had it become invisible? Some curious trompe l’oeil brought about by its thinner than stick-thinness? He waited in place. It was as if they had opened up a door in the air and glided through it, shutting that door and the dimensionality of the earth with it.
Finally he credited they had actually taken their leave of the planet. He looked down at his own dimensionality, wrinkled, bulbous and fleshy. A gentle wind got up. Wisps of sand blew down from the ridges of his footprints to block in the depressions. He turned to gather his clothes. He noticed that the sidewinder’s tracks had also disappeared.