April 2021

“You can call me Fairburn.” The voice was even, cool, but somehow familiar.”

“Well, Mr. Fairburn, you’ve got my attention,” Sexton said. “Go on.”

“I’ve been keeping an eye on you for some time, Mr. Sexton, and I have to say I’m impressed. You’ve managed to con your way into, and out of, places one might think were nigh impenetrable.”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence.”

“And you’ve played with the digital landscape masterfully to hide your cash from the authorities,” Fairburn continued. “I know all about your accounts.”

“Well, it seems like a country that won’t go after its own president-for-life for tax evasion isn’t about to squeeze someone like me, does it?”

“Maybe not while the authorities remain blind, but if I alert them, they surely will,” Fairburn said. “Unless you care to keep listening.”

“Blackmail?” Sexton said. “Do you really think someone who’d walk away from everything in their life is able to be blackmailed so easily?”

“The threat of blackmail is just to get a foot in the door, so to speak,” Fairburn said. “All I ask is that you listen to my proposal. I’ll text you an address, a date, and a time. Let me put something to you there and then. I’ll pay you for your time.”

“No thank you,” Sexton said. “I think it’d be more fun to let you do your thing and see how long I can elude the authorities.”

“Do you now?” Fairburn said. “Aren’t you interested in how I spoofed this number, learned which burner phone you were using? I could sweeten the deal by throwing that information in for free. I know you’re curious.”

Sexton bit his lip. “And you say I’ll be paid?”

“Given what I’ve seen of your earnings, you’ll receive fair recompense in both cash and information.”

Sexton waited a moment subtly shifting his weight from foot to foot. “All right,” he said. “Tell me where, and when.”

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“I hope you’re right. I hope this is a false positive. But we need to proceed under the assumption that it’s not,” Graves said. “The briefing is now over; approach me afterwards if you have any further questions.”

Norah shimmied out of the briefing with Jamesson and Skiltmaler shortly behind, all managing to jam their elbows or the corners of their file folders into someone or something vulnerable.

“Did you notice,” Norah said, “that Angelo didn’t say a word during that whole briefing?”

“The astrophysicist and SETI muckity-muck isn’t the one you’d expect to stay quiet during a bombshell like that,” agreed Jameson.

A roll of an oily ocean swell caused Skiltmaler to lose balance for a moment, arms pinwheeling. “Looked kind of green, maybe it was seasickness?”

“I thought Norwegians were Vikings, people of the sea, with brine for blood and oars for arms,” Norah laughed.

“Oh, that’s all true,” Skiltmaler said. “But we’re no good on anything bigger than a longboat. But put me in a kayak and watch out.”

They kept on talking, and joking, without even approaching the subject of the briefing. Perhaps that was because, in their thunderstruck states, there was simply nothing to say. Falling back on banter was a familiar recourse during times of extreme stress.

They found Angelo hanging over one of the destroyer’s gunwales, looking every bit as green as Skiltmaler had said.

“A bit surprising, wouldn’t you say, when the ET expert has nothing to say when Graves tells us flat out we might be looking at proof of extraterrestrial life, wouldn’t you say?” Jameson said, sidling alongside the SETI alum.

“Look, I get it,” Norah added, leaning on the rail to Angelo’s left. “What can you say? It’s just so huge. So enormous. I think I might be a little sick too, once it has time to sink in.”

Angelo’s eyes widened, and for a moment it looked like hurling over the side was a very real possibility. Instead of breakfast, though, words croaked out from between chapped lips. “That briefing. I’ve been there before.”

“Haven’t we all,” Skiltmaler chuckled. “I worked with Graves on Project Neo-Habakkuk, and the briefings there were basically the same.”

“No,” Angelo croaked. “That same exact meeting. The ship encountered something…sank with all hands…and now we’re back, here, before it even began.”

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The Elder Plant fell today
Knocked askance, dirt everywhere
Culprit in custody, wagging
We think it will survive
Gently patted into new soil
Crushed leaves smoothed, sunned
It is older than the culprit
Older than our marriage
Cuttings taken from mother plant
A decade ago, a thousand miles away
That plant cut, in turn, from another
When the Elder Plant fell today
How many generations tottered
How many years plummeted
Spraying butterfly wings of soil

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“This is telemetry from a Integrated Operational NuDet Detection System, or IONDS, satellite over the South Pacific Gyre,” said Graves. The image changed to a bright flash of visible light over cloudy water from a low-Earth orbit.

“NuDet?” Skiltmaler said, snickering. It was impossible to tell if the long, drawn-out ‘u’ that resulted was from sarcasm or a Norwegian accent.

“Nuclear detonation,” Graves replied. The mood of the briefing room sobered considerably. “IONDS is designed to detect nuclear detonations by looking for their characteristic double-flash. As of the timestamp on this image, it found one in an impossible place.”

“An unsanctioned nuclear test?” Jameson said.

“We have taken that possibility into account,” Graves replied. “Such a thing has been done before, like the unsanctioned South Africa/Israel test near the Prince Edward Islands in 1979. But we don’t think so.”

“Why not?” Skiltmaler asked, all business now, perhaps to make up for the earlier levity, which now felt nails-on-a-chalkboard out of place.

“IONDS is carefully calibrated for NuD–er, nuclear detonations. This was far, far outside of the expected profile of any nuclear explosion past or present. And there’s also this, captured by the Near-Earth Climate Observer satellite.”

The image changed yet again, to a shallower angle with less resolution. A bright yellow streak was visible, seeming to exist like a time-lapse, across several different instants.

“This is without a doubt a reentry of some sort, but the trajectory, timing, and of course aberrant nuclear double-flash rule out all possible known near-earth objects, manmade and natural.” Graves clicked the hidden remote again, and a new image took the screen, this one resembling an amateur astronomer’s smeared observation. “We collated the data with observations made by Haleakalā Observatory in Hawaii, and it appears that the object in question had been observed for some time by automated systems without being detected.”

“Are you saying,” Jameson whispered, “what I think you’re saying?”

“The trajectory indicates an extrasolar origin, and the double-flash implies a manner of…intelligent design,” Graves said. “It is possible that this is an artificial craft that was deliberately ditched much like we would one of our own.”

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“All right,” Graves said. “You may now open your packets.”

Elbows and hands jutted awkwardly at the briefing room table as the participants broke the paper seals on their briefing folders. A destroyer was not a spacious ship to begin with, and packing the room with people had not helped the innate claustrophobia.

“You’ll have time to review the materials on your own,” the officer continued, “but I must emphasize that this is top secret, eyes-only information protected under the Espionage Act of 1917 and Title 18 of the US Code. Penalties for any leakage are severe.” Graves held up and rattled a cardboard box on which bars had been sharpied. “That’s why all your devices are in phone jail and will remain there until we land.”

Amid grumbles and moans, Graves activated the built-in briefing screen. It showed a large circle centered in the South Pacific, outlined in red, with a dot at its center. “Is anyone familiar with this?” he said.

“Point Nemo,” said Norah. “The place on water that is furthest from any land. Pretty close to the sunken city of R’lyeh from Lovecraft.”

“Yes, that’s right. Remotest spot on water, and aside from the occasional ship, the largest patch on the planet with no humans,” said Graves, pointedly ignoring the Lovecraft reference. He clicked a hidden wireless pointer, and a series of small red X marks overlaid the area. “We use it as a satellite graveyard, since they are less likely to hit anything important.”

“Did something unusual crop up in the graveyard?” Jamesson said, adding a sotto voce ghost moan.

Graves pressed his lips together, as if musing extending the sentence Jamesson’s Samsung in phone jail. “Yes,” he said.

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One day, Nick Sexton walked out of his job and into a lucrative second career as a con artist.

It was around the time the election was overturned and the court struck down term limits, and Sexton had been in the teacher’s lounge, watching events unfold and stewing in anger. Then he’d had an epiphany.

If lying and cheating is what got those people there, then what the hell was he doing there, being honest for no gain whatsoever? He could face down a classroom full of snot-nosed seventh-graders, so what terrors could the world possibly hold beyond that?

And Sexton’s lies and scams, well, they wouldn’t get people killed. There were always people with more dollars than sense.

And so he walked out of the teacher’s lounge and down to the computer IT lab, where 1000 expensive titanium computers were being prepared for the latest crop of rich, spoiled private school brats. Flashing an ID badge he had palmed, he had the techs load up the units into the van for a ‘software upgrade.’

The next day he was already two states over, having stopped at every pawnshop in every town he passed through to sell a laptop. When he ran out of those, he sold the van. By the time anyone knew to look for him, he was gone–with about a quarter million dollars in cash, to boot.

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The howling was a cacophony, making it almost impossible to hear a word when Peyton spoke: “What is all that racket?”

Marshall looked into the distance, at the dim glow dotting the hills. “The Dogfires have been lit,” he muttered.

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I stare down the barrel
Of the Great Filter
On such vanities as these
Every alien civilization
In the observable universe
Has come up short
With extinction to follow
I should feel honored
For such illustrious fellows
But instead I just feel empty
All those far-off worlds
Those alien ecologies
Novel life forms, chemistries
The same mundane problems
As little old me

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“Call me Rudolf,” the Landsknecht said. “Here, have a drink.”

He held out a stein of water to Georg, which the captive was just able to grasp by straining at his chains.

“Very kind of you,” Georg said, between gulps. His speech was slurred but intelligible given the swelling of his jaw and around his orbit. “I can’t say as your friend have been as hospitable since I’ve been their guest.”

“Well, Landsknechte are just doing a job,” Rudolf said. “Some take it a little too seriously. I do not. Your men fought bravely with inferior equipment, and killed six of my men. Six! It’s been a long time since we took that many casualties in battle, and even then it was against pike and shot. You took those men down with swords made from sickles and scythes bent into pikes.”

“And you ran them down for it,” Georg said. “There were close to a thousand of us.”

“Well, now there are five, give or take. Your leader has already been beheaded; might be able to see his head out your window if you lean just right. The rest of you get to share his fate once certain niceties are decided upon.”

“You came to gloat?” replied Georg.

“Defeat is the common fate of a soldier; it won’t do to wail against it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a shred of compassion,” Rudolf said. “You and your peasant boys fought well against impossible odds. If you’d had our equipment and training, you’d have taken the field and we really would be rid of all nobles and kings, just the way you wanted. I’m tipping my hat to you.”

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Masks required to shop here

As I watch you walk the aisles

Please wear a mask for the health and safety of our employees!

Nostrils flaring, lips wet

Masks are required – Management

I wonder if you wouldn’t mind

We appreciate you masking up

Just telling me

We love our customers! Please wear a mask

That you don’t care

By order of the governor, masks are required here

If I live or die

Local ordinance: masks required for all

It’s just as cruel

Masks are required – thank you for understanding

But saves me the suspense

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