One of the Senators cleared her throat, turned on the microphone in front of her, and began.
“Would you like to tell us when you first became aware of the phenomenon, Doctor? Perhaps that would be the best place to start. We can formulate our questions from there.”
The hearing was not in the main Congressional building. It was in a building on another part of Capitol Hill, in a room overdue for remodeling, with drop-ceiling panels stained by leaking pipes.
But the room, however humble, was crowded. Folding chairs had been brought in to accommodate the overflow. People stood in the back several rows deep.
Harlan sat near the front of the room. He was surrounded by freelance reporters, curiosity seekers, conspiracy theorists, and the unemployed. There were large demographic overlaps between all these groups, he thought. And they also seemed to share a common dress code.
Doctor Makhviladze took a sip from the glass of water in front of her, glanced over a page of notes, and began.
The first incident happened in the Caucasus Mountains, in the country of Georgia. It went unreported—but then, much of what occurred in Georgia in those days went unreported. It was the kind of country where, when someone said: “Here come the police!” people spit on the ground or hurried off.
An eleven-year-old girl named Nino Makhviladze was wandering in a pine wood near her village. She carried an old, battered shoebox reinforced with cheap packing tape. The shoebox contained a dwarf pinecone, a river stone full of blue streaks like waves, the rainbow corpse of a beetle, two owl pellets, the skull of a shrew stripped clean by ants, and other treasures she would have to hide from her mother.
She saw the crow fall from the sky. It was a hooded crow—gray, with a black head, throat, wings, and tail. It came tumbling down, wings slightly open, landing softly on the pine needles ten feet from her. Its foot twitched once.
Nino knew it was dead. She had seen many dead things in the woods. She had never actually seen something die right in front of her like this, though. She set her shoebox down and approached the crow cautiously, as if it might suddenly burst back into life. After a moment spent looking into the still crystal of its black eye, she reached down and touched it.
It was softer than she had imagined a crow would be, and still warm. She picked it up. It was very handsome. Then she saw there was a neat, circular hole about the size of a finger through its breast, passing all the way through its body. There was little blood. The hole was so neatly made you could look through it. Nino did, tilting the bird up and glimpsing a bit of sky through the hole. Then she carefully wrapped the hooded crow in newspaper.
At home, Nino dug a nice, deep hole in the black earth of the garden. She laid the crow in it, wrapped in his newspaper shroud. She named him “Charlie,” a name she had read in a book and which she had always wanted to give to something. After she tamped the earth down over Charlie, she held a small service for him. She talked about how he had been a very good crow. He had been very smart, and had always done his homework, but God took him anyway because the ways of God are mysterious. Now Charlie was at peace, although his friends would miss him.
Nino did not believe in God, but she knew that people believed in him at funerals.
She marked Charlie’s grave with the blue-streaked river stone, which she thought he would like. Then she went inside and hid her shoebox in her dresser under her oldest towels. She stole a hunk of sausage from the refrigerator, punched her younger brother in the side of the head when he tried to snatch the sausage out of her hand, and lay down on the couch to daydream of her future life as a scientist.
The senators paused. Harlan scanned their faces for some sign of where their prejudices lay. Were they skeptical? Ready to condemn? Ready to believe? There were a few bright eyes among them, but most were old. They looked tired—battered by political infighting, by bureaucracy and the manifold futilities of public service.
“And when . . .” The Senator from Ohio paused a moment, took a drink of water, looked at his notes. His jowly, drooping face made him look like a bulldog—harmless, friendly. A football mascot, a beloved pet. “And when did you begin to fully formulate the theory you have come to lay out before this committee today? That is, you formed a team at one point, Doctor. You had already been traveling for some time, I take it, gathering data. When was it you became convinced of this theory?”
A quarter of a century later, the little girl from Georgia, now Doctor Makhviladze, a conservation biologist for the Department of the Interior, was brought in to investigate a similar hole. This one passed all the way through four coastal redwoods in Redwood National Park in Northern California. Doctor Makhviladze was called “Doctor Nina” by colleagues who found pronouncing her last name an impossibility. Of course, her first name wasn’t “Nina” either—it was Nino. But she had given up on trying to get Americans to pronounce her name correctly.
Doctor Nino had passed a red piece of thread through the four holes. The string passed through all of them in a straight line. She was now walking carefully around the area, photographing.
The Park Ranger with her watched her complete her task with his hands in his pockets. She had told him she did not need his help, so he was demonstrating not helping. His name was Harlan Jones. Doctor Nino had not said a single word to him for the past ten minutes. In an effort to fill the silence, Harlan Jones was compulsively releasing a stream of commentary in Doctor Nino’s direction while stealing glances at her face.
It was a unique face—an elongated oval with an aquiline nose, slightly bulging blue eyes with a half-ring of dark shadow beneath them, a small mouth and narrow chin. Her skin was pale, but not the pink-pale of Harlan Jones, breathing out mist in the cold morning air, shifting his weight from foot to foot and babbling, he thought to himself, like a useless asshole. No. Her face was not pale like his face. Her face had the ash-blue pallor of saints or martyrs. Like something out of a book on medieval painting that he’d perused in university for an Art History class.
“. . . never seen anything like it,” he continued, hating himself and wishing he would please stop talking. “It’s a strange prank. It really must have taken a lot of time to do. Elaborate. Like . . . crop circles, all those decades ago? It’s like a bore hole drilled in the ground, or a core sample. Except horizontal. But all exactly in a straight line. So strange. But it doesn’t really seem like it was made by a drill. At least no drill that I’ve seen.” Oh God, please shut up, he thought. “There isn’t that spiral pattern that there would be . . .”
“Actually,” Doctor Nino said without looking up from her work, “There is a spiral pattern. It’s just invisible to the eye. We’ll find it when I enlarge the photos. Are these four trees clones?”
Harlan nodded. “It’s likely. You see how they are all growing in a straight line? They are probably ramets from the same root system. Their parent tree must have fallen a long time ago. These trees are at least four hundred years old. You’ve seen this kind of thing before? These holes? Does the fact that these trees are clones mean something?”
She didn’t bother answering the question. “Have you found any dead animals recently in the park? Or anything that seemed strange to you?”
Back at the Ranger station, Harlan watched Doctor Nino examine the carcass of a deer that had been brought in that morning. A ranger had found it lying in a growth of ferns about three hundred yards from a road.
“It was strange, of course: Usually a high velocity, high caliber bullet is going to cause all kinds of cavitation and basically turn a deer into hamburger. This looks like a high caliber rifle bullet: the entrance hole is large enough for a finger. But it just passes straight through. The exit and entrance wounds are exactly the same. And nearby we found a skunk with the same kind of hole. We, uh, left him in situ. Because, you know, skunk. And, to be honest, we didn’t think much about it. We looked around for a shell for a while, but it’s hard to find much in the underbrush without a dog, and the budget cuts . . . well, we had to retire our dog. She was having hip problems. And we couldn’t afford a new one. Are you staying in the dormitories? Or . . .”
Doctor Nino had set her small camera up on a flexible quadropod and was photographing the wound. Harlan noticed that, as she moved around the deer carcass photographing, her hand would often stroke the deer’s fur, as if it were alive. She looked at Harlan as if she were just remembering he was there. “No. I’m at a motel just up the coast. In Klamath.”
“That’s nicer,” Harlan said. “The dormitories are pretty basic.”
She said nothing.
“So, you’ve seen something like this before?”
“Yes, many times.”
“Yes. All over the country. That’s why I’m here. For the past two years, this is all I have been working on.”
Just then, Harlan’s radio squawked to life.
“I’m impressed by the amount of data, Doctor, that you were able to gather. And by your level of commitment to the project. Your report is—I’ll admit, your report is a bit above my level . . .” The Senator from Nebraska tapped a glistening silver nail against her hijab, to illustrate the point. “I’m having a bit of trouble taking it all in.”
The bulldog switched on his microphone: “You aren’t the only one.”
The Senator from Nebraska waited a beat, continued: “. . . but of course, what brought this to Senate attention is the national security element. Specifically, the human element. The casualties. If you could spell out a little more clearly the human impact you observed, that would be helpful.”
“Yes,” Doctor Nino—immaculate and angular in a grey tweed suit Harlan had picked up for her from the cleaners that morning—straightened her shoulders and turned a page in her binder. “That is, in fact, what I was coming to.”
The Zodiac inflatable boat had been hauled up on a rocky shore on an inlet along the coast—a lonely little lee where a cliff buttonhooked away from the ocean’s waves for a moment. A stony, dismal beach where current-lathed snags of wood and dead seals washed up after storms.
It had been punctured, and was half deflated. There were bales of something, wrapped in rubberized waterproof sheeting, stacked in the boat. One dead man, in a gray poncho, lay face down, two body-lengths away from the craft. Another, in a camouflage poncho, was in the boat itself, slumped over the deflated gunwale on the port side, toward the bow.
The police had cordoned off the stony inlet to keep the crime scene safe, but a steady rain was destroying evidence anyway.
The Sheriff’s Office detective was saying, “. . . of course we have jurisdictional issues with the inlet, which is why we called you in. It’s technically park property, here, but we think you’ll just want to turn it over to the county. It looks like a drug thing. Cocaine in the bales, silent run motor on the Zodiac, and both of these clowns with just a single hole through them. High caliber. I haven’t had a chance to properly examine the bodies yet, but . . .”
“It isn’t drugs,” Nino said.
“Oh really?” the detective said, annoyed. “What was it, then?”
“Well, I have a hypothesis,” said Nino, looking at the perfectly circular hole in the poncho of the man lying face down on the wet stones. “But nobody likes it.”
“Try me,” the detective said.
“No,” Nino replied. “I’d rather not.”
“And you were feeding all of this back to your superiors? That is, you were filing regular reports up the chain?”
“Initially, I admit my reports were a little . . . intermittent. But they were fully descriptive, yes. And after I acquired an assistant, they became more regular. As did my vouchering, expense reporting—I was able to be a much better bureaucrat.”
A ripple of laughter went through the senators—and a louder, answering chuckle surged through their staffers, taking notes at the back of the room.
On the motel room flat screen, Harlan Jones watched a tornado of fire consume Yosemite National Park. Half Dome haloed with glowing haze. A winding column of flame staggering through a blazing forest. Burning cinders danced in the drone’s camera eye before it tilted, shuddered, and went black. The screen cut to an anchorwoman. Behind her, red skeletons of tract homes shuddered in on themselves. Fire refugees in ash-smeared gas masks wheeled suitcases and strollers through the haze.
There was a knock at the motel room door. Harlan opened it in time to see a figure in a grey hoodie swinging over the rail and plunging down the steps.
On the doormat was a shoebox. Harlan had already brought it into the motel room and opened before realizing what a bad idea that was. With a shudder he imagined the pipe bomb that could have gone off, imagined himself shattered.
Inside the box was a small cylinder, less than the diameter of a broomstick, no more than three inches long, with a cone-shaped tip on one end. It was black, and featureless. Underneath it was a note:
“Found lodged in stone, Glacier National Park. One week ago. Thought you guys should have it before THEY get their hands on it. Tell the world!”
There was a printed photograph of a granite rock face with a small hole in it. Harlan recognized the hole. Over the last year, he had seen hundreds exactly like it.
As usual, Nino’s terminal was on mute. She was investigating an incident site in the State Park —a grizzly bear had been shot near the park’s entrance. Harlan should have been with her, but he was coming down with something. He wasn’t sure if it was a head cold, or the flu, or if he was just tired. He had spent a year dancing across the country from one motel to another, understanding nothing, working logistics for Nino as she silently measured one site after another.
His job title was general assistant, but lackey was more accurate. She told him nothing. “I have a theory,” she would say, “but I’m not ready to talk about it yet.” And they would separate, cross through the parking lot to their separate rooms in the anonymous gloam of evening. In his room, he would stay up late into the night on his terminal, filling out resource requests, expense reports, vouchers. What she did in hers, he didn’t imagine he would ever know.
He had hoped for more—hoped, maybe, that something would grow between them, or at least that he would be a full partner in something, but in the end he was just her assistant. It wasn’t really enough, but it was enough to keep him around.
He had accepted her offer to be seconded to her section of the Department of the Interior impulsively. He’d had nothing to hold him down to his vague, weightless life. His job in the park was a routine, with no chance of promotion or change in scene. He knew his life would be the same in ten years. And in ten years after that. Taking the offer—texted offhandedly by Doctor Nino four days after she had left—meant escape. Dump a lease, offend a colleague, be bold. This job, at least, promised adventure. And there was adventure to be had, of a sort.
But mostly, there were holes.
Holes everywhere: in animals, in trees, in the ground, sometimes in people. They traveled from one piece of federal or state land to another, looking at holes. They talked to local cops about holes, talked to the FBI about holes. They read news reports about holes—reports usually drowned at the bottom of some local paper’s feed, five clicks deep.
Holes. Always the same size.
He looked at the object again. Yes, he thought, this is it. It has to be. He had simply been in the right place at the right time, but he felt a surge of triumph, as if he had discovered something. He reached into the box to pick the thing up, then stopped. No. Nino would kill him if he touched it without her around. He sat down on the bed and tried her terminal again, then sent her a text. On the screen, the President was shaking his head at a reporter, mouthing the words “Next question . . .” and pointing to someone else.
“Is this the end of the world?” Harlan imagined the reporter asking bitterly, “Sir? Is this the end of the world? Fifty-seven percent of California’s forests consumed by fire over the past five years . . . ten thousand people dead, the Hudson River lapping at the sandbagged lobby of the Empire State Building . . . no end in sight to the rains. The Maldives officially ceased to exist two years ago—an entire country, dissolved beneath the feet of its inhabitants. Waves scraped entire Micronesian islands clean of life. Sir? Sir? Is this the year when we call it? Is this the year when we say, ‘Now the end has come?’ Or should we just go on pretending?”
But nobody asked the question.
“Surely there must have been some reaction from your superiors.”
“Yes. The reaction was that they continued to fund my research. In my experience, that indicates a high level of interest.”
“But nobody ever asked you to present findings? Even though, as you stated earlier, the frequency of incidents was rising. Do you have any theories as to why? It sounds like negligence, Doctor Nina—on their part, I mean. You were filing these reports, what, monthly?”
“Weekly, I believe.”
“And there was no wider interest?”
“Not from my superiors, no. I think they had larger issues to deal with, given the destruction of our natural resources and national parks. There was, however, wider interest from certain . . . other communities.”
“Certain ‘other’ communities?”
“Can you clarify?”
“Conspiracy communities. UFO hobbyists. Millenarian religious groups. Anonymous callers. We were often contacted by people.”
“That must have been a frustration.”
“On the contrary: They sometimes provided us with valuable leads. And one of them delivered the first device we recovered to us, as I detailed previously. Besides, they had good stories. It broke up the monotony.”
In the hallway of the laboratory, Harlan switched on the receiver of his terminal. The man on the other end of the line said: “I’m calling you from a pay phone. I got your number from a friend.”
“Go on,” Harlan said. “I’m listening.”
He’d learned by now that it was best to just listen to them. Don’t try to sort the crazy, and don’t, for god’s sake, lead them off on some tangent. But where on earth does one find a pay phone, for god’s sake? Jail? A mental institution? How many pay phones could be left? Certainly, only the deranged used them.
“They took my wife yesterday. She was out in the garden. I saw it through the kitchen window. One minute she was bent over the turnip bed, weeding, and the next she was down. They ran a hole clean through her. And you should know: There was a sound. It wasn’t a sound I could hear, but my dog heard it. He went to the door and stood there wagging his tail. Started doing it about a minute before they took my wife . . . they use some kind of machine, you know, to take the souls out. All that’s left is an empty body . . . are you there?”
“When you find her, tell her to come home.”
“I will. Can you tell me where you are? What state, at least?”
Harlan heard a sound he had not heard since he was a child: the sound of a receiver being set on its cradle.
In the laboratory, Nino was bent over a microscope. The lab technician leaned on a counter nearby, saying: “Its structure is anything but uniform. It’s composed of an extraordinarily dense, engineered substance or substances, all basically structured carbon. We were able to section it finally with a nanosaw, but it burned through two blades. Inside, it seems almost solid . . . but that’s misleading. What you see when you look closer are surfaces within surfaces within surfaces. What it looks like to me is a series of mono-, bi-, and tri-layer membranes inside—essentially, artificial membranes: analog structures for sorting physical information, like a complex series of physical logic gates. The membranes are akin to graphene lattices, but each membrane we’ve been able to look at has an entirely different structure, allowing a different type of material—a different molecular structure—to either pass, or not pass, through its barriers. I found traces inside the object of the granite it was embedded in—I say traces, but not like dust or anything. What I found were molecular traces sandwiched between membranes. The base components that would add up to granite.”
Nino raised her head from the microscope and turned her face toward the technician.
“If you had to say what it was, what would you say?”
“If you made me guess, I’d say it was some kind of scientific instrument. Something like a core sampler, with an analog processing capacity built into it. I’d say what we are looking at is the most complicated molecular abacus you could imagine. But I don’t see how it could be mobile. And I don’t see how it could have caused the events you report. It can’t possibly move on its own—at least not in any way I can understand. But there’s so much to it that we could probably run tests on it for more man-hours than we have available across all this country’s labs. My analysis was superficial. The denseness of the membranes approaches the denseness of the human brain’s neural structure. You would need so much time . . .”
“I’ll need the sample back,” Nino said, with her typical abruptness. “What you’ve determined so far is at least enough for me to move forward for the moment.”
“We’ll continue, at least, to work on what we have. It would be better if we could keep the sample . . .” The technician saw something in Nino’s eyes, and quickly added, “But anyway, I have enough data as it is for years of study.”
• • • •
Outside, the streets were filled with designer masks. Evil rabbit fangs dripping blood, classic skeleton grins, leering bear mouths, smiley faces iconed under red-rimmed, distracted eyes irritated by the pollution from a hundred forest fires.
Harlan and Nino ate lunch at a diner along the side of a four-lane road, an anonymous scar through the metastic concrete sprawl around Los Angeles—a white line on a digital map from one place to another, punctuated by a piece of rotting googie architecture exalting the donut, under a sky jaundiced by fire. It was August. The wind brought the smoke of wildfires. Harlan ate a salad while Nino tucked into a burger. Halfway through their meal, he asked:
“What do you think?”
“It corresponds,” she replied. “It fits the model.”
A push notification on Harlan’s terminal read: “Mass killing of animals at Beijing Zoo. Perpetrators unknown.”
“Maybe we should go to China,” Harlan said. “It would be a change of pace.”
“Yes,” Nino said. “I suppose it would. I got a call from a colleague of mine there. But that’s not where we are headed.”
“Where to, then?”
“Was it while you were in Wyoming that you tendered your resignation?”
“Can you tell us a little about that?”
“I got an offer that would allow me to study the phenomenon with increased freedom. Without the hassle of bureaucracy, and with a much larger budget, as well as access to private laboratories. I had seen no indication from the Department of the Interior that the scope of my investigations would be widened. And I doubted they would end up anywhere, in the end.”
“What do you mean, exactly, when you say you doubted ‘that they would end up anywhere in the end’?”
“You know that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Where they wheel the ark into that warehouse and place it among all those other numbered crates? That’s what I mean.”
That got a chuckle.
“And did you take, as has been accused, classified information with you?”
“I took what was in my head. And the object. It was not classified, and nobody had bothered to even catalogue it, yet.”
“Still,” the bulldog interjected, “it was obvious enough that it was something of interest, is that correct? Something that, perhaps, would be classified, as it were, in the future.”
Doctor Nino shrugged. “Sure. If they ever got around to caring.”
The corpses were strewn to the prairie horizon—as if the bison, red-tailed hawks and prairie dogs had fought a pitched battle against one another, and now lay where they had fallen during a series of charges and retreats. Vultures rotated in the cloudless sky.
The billionaire’s barn coat was broken in and aged in such a perfect, effortless way that Harlan wondered if he’d hired someone to wear it for him for a few months. The billionaire’s Wranglers were stiff and dark over a pair of well-oiled roper boots.
“Damn near half the herd,” he said. “And pretty much the whole prairie dog town, too.”
A breeze lifted clouds of glittering flies off the corpses. They resettled with an irritated drone.
“Of course I’ve been following your work,” the billionaire said. Of course—as if everyone had been following their obscure path. As if it was the story of the year. “I just never thought it would come to my doorstep.”
He sealed the deal with Nino over a handshake in his den. “Whatever’s fair. And whatever resources you need.”
On the way out to the car, Nino said: “Well—he may be a madman, but he’s our madman.”
Harlan remembered her that evening—happier than he had ever seen her. As they had driven away from the billionaire’s ranch, the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” came on the radio, and both of them sing-shouted maniacally along, off-key: “I read the news today, oh boy . . . four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire! And though the holes were rather small . . . they had to count them all! Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Haaaaaaaaall . . .” And she had turned and smiled at him—really smiled—and punched him awkwardly on the shoulder. When the song ended, they lapsed into the warm silence of true friendship, driving directly into a prairie sunset, the arrow of the road arcing to a horizon of rose-ribbon clouds and violet wheat.
“And you never entertained the thought that this might be a matter of national security? It has been suggested by some in our intelligence services . . .”
Doctor Nino interrupted with an irritated wave of her hand. “No. Once we had the resources, we were able to determine a bit more about the devices. Not only has damage from them been found all over the world, including in the countries your intelligence services say they may have originated from—but that theory makes no sense, according to what we know.”
“You obtained more definitive evidence?”
“We obtained a second device, from a South American source.”
In the laboratory, Nino paged through the lab technician’s report data on a terminal. The lab technician read over her shoulder. They had managed to hire her away as well, with the promise of being able to publish, and of far better resources.
“It’s the same as the first one,” she was explaining. “Inside, a series of mono-, bi-, and tri-layer membranes. If you cut all the way to the center, you see that it has stored DNA there in one of its compartments. The DNA is from the endangered vinaceous-breasted Amazon parrot—Amazona vinacea—but the DNA is only a part of what the device has sorted. It has also used its artificial membranes to sort and store folded proteins, cell types, mitochondria—a wealth of information.”
“It’s collecting the organism in full—the dynamic, living process,” said Nino. “Not just the digital means of storage—the DNA—but the analog protein and cellular data as well.”
“It’s taking a very accurate picture.”
“It’s recording the full developmental system of the organism.”
“Yes—or as much as can be sampled.”
“Repeat that last part,” said the Senator from Nebraska.
Doctor Nino took a drink of water and looked at the stained ceiling for a moment. Harlan knew that she was trying to find a way to translate her thoughts so others could understand them. “Okay. The innermost principle of heredity is survival, just as Darwin said. But survival doesn’t mean just the passing down of a digital inscription of an organism—DNA. Species aren’t only their genes. They are also analog—space-time continuous, so to speak. Inside them, their cells need to carry out interpretive tasks, and the individuals of the species—these swarms of interacting cells—need to also interact with—and interpret—their environment. This interpretation of internal chemical signals and external signals is semiotic survival. If you can’t read signs—chemical signs calling on your immune system to produce antibodies, to external signs of danger, you can’t survive, on either the cellular level or the level of the entire organism. But reading signs isn’t done with DNA. It’s a living, analog process. And if you want to understand that built environment and the analog process, you need a sample of more than just DNA.”
There was a long silence. “Maybe . . . in simpler terms?” the Bulldog interjected.
The Senator from Nebraska leaned into her microphone. “DNA doesn’t tell you what a stop sign means. It just helps build an organism capable of seeing it.”
“My feelings are still a bit hurt over being called a swarm of cells,” the Bulldog said. “But I think I’m catching on.”
The International Space Station was struck by five objects, two of which penetrated habitation modules. The damage was quickly contained. None of the three crew aboard at the time were harmed. The largest threat to astronaut well-being was a punctured fluid line, which was quickly repaired.
Infotainment feedstreams did manage, however, to milk hysterical headlines from the incident, which was accompanied by a number of radar systems on Earth detecting “several large, amorphous swarms of unknown origin”—this was the first report, and the clunky term stuck, repeated by a thousand talking heads, and translated into most of the planet’s broadcast and podcast languages. Soon the news of “large, amorphous swarms of unknown origin” was plastered on every feed on the planet.
The swarms themselves were gone quickly: They gathered suddenly, four or five for every continent, and then moved at hypersonic speed up through the upper atmosphere, punching through Earth orbit and accelerating out toward the edge of the solar system.
This was five days before Congress decided to summon Doctor Nino to deliver her testimony.
“Striking the International Space Station wasn’t an attack. It was just an accident. Incidental contact. Luckily the station was just grazed by the outside edge of one of the swarms.”
“Luckily,” snorted someone in the audience, drawing a glare from a staffer.
“You say here that, according to your team’s estimates, over the past five years there have been 7,582 human deaths, and 12,655 injuries associated with this phenomenon—these are ones that could be verified. You estimate animal casualties in the millions—most of them, as you put it here, ‘uncounted, unnoticed, unreported, or disregarded.’” The Senator from Utah had been mostly quiet throughout the session, reading during the other Senators’ questions and making notes. “So much brutality. You seem a bit unmoved.”
“I’m not unmoved. But I wouldn’t call it brutality. It’s more like . . . scientific indifference. You are applying human logic to alien probes. This is causing you to misinterpret its actions. To borrow a metaphor from your colleague: you are failing to read the stop sign correctly.”
“And how, then, should I read it? What should we do?”
“Do you mean what should we do about the probes? Nothing. First of all, they are gone. But even while they were here, there was nothing to be done. There was never anything to reason with, never any way to shield ourselves from their activities. Everything about them was beyond our understanding. But if you mean in general—well, in general, in my opinion, we should stop destroying ourselves. That is my recommendation to this committee, and to the human race in general.”
• • • •
Outside, on the steps of the anonymous, brutalist Congressional office building, Doctor Nino read from a piece of folded paper. Her spiky testimony had drawn attention. Now there were more than just freelancers and conspiracy theorists in the crowd. Harlan watched as tissue was folded over collars and faces were powdered in preparation for prime time. Doctor Nino’s calm face looked out at the horizon from behind a thicket of recording devices and microphones.
“The storm petrel,” she began, “has been known by a number of different names: the Russians call it ‘burevestnik’ or ‘storm bird.’ Spanish sailors called them the ‘swallows of the storm.’ They thought the birds signaled bad weather ahead, disaster just over the horizon. I am borrowing that term—the Swallows of the Storm—for this phenomenon. We should not see this visitation as an opening to communication, as some kind of ‘first contact.’ Nor should we view it as an attack on us. It is neither. In my opinion, however, we should take it as a warning.”
“How are we supposed to communicate with them?” someone shouted from the crowd. Harlan couldn’t tell if it was a journalist or just some random person.
Nino cleared her throat, scanned her paper, then looked up and went on. She must have been preparing for this moment for weeks. “I understand your disappointment. I do. We’ve been waiting so long, we thought, to meet aliens. We’ve made hundreds of movies about this moment, written a thousand stories. But in the end, I think it wasn’t aliens we wanted to meet: it was just us, in other forms. Humans with different bodies, but recognizable to us. Aliens we could speak to, relate to.”
She paused. Harlan had never seen her speak publicly before the hearings. She had the crowd hanging on her words. She was good at this. “This is not that,” she continued. “As far as we can tell, the swallows came here to gather data. I think this gathering is not meant to be hostile—though it may have come with a heavy human toll. It is, most likely, an effort at preservation. And now they are gone. They have what they came for—a snapshot of our planet’s ecosystem, before it is shredded by our indifference.
“Maybe we should be grateful: Somewhere, someone or something is interested, perhaps, in making sure we survive. More interested, it appears, than we are. We have been ‘backed up’ just at the moment when we teeter on the brink of an abyss of our own making. We don’t know why. Perhaps we are being catalogued by a species interested in us personally—or maybe it is just a matter of routine. Maybe the species that created the swallows is now gone, and they wander the stars orphaned—collecting, analyzing, cataloguing . . . forever. We can’t know. But what matters is what we do here, now. What matters is that we must stop destroying ourselves.”
Delivered under a clear, blue sky on a warm spring Washington day, without the slightest hint of apocalypse in it, her words seemed alarmist, exaggerated.
“Certainly, you could be wrong,” a reporter said. “A number of other theories are being offered for the phenomenon. Yours is just the opinion of one person, after all.”
There was a murmur of agreement in the crowd.
“Well,” Doctor Nino said, looking at the reporter with a look Harlan recognized: the tired look of restrained annoyance she gave to anyone who proposed anything to her with insufficient evidence: “I certainly hope I am wrong. I can only give you my hypothesis and the evidence that supports it. Science does not offer proof or certainty. I’m sorry.”
With a wave of her pale hand, she brushed away further questions and descended the steps.
• • • •
Later, Harlan and Nino sat in a booth in a bar—some anonymous place, artificial and faux-cozy, like a London club interior assembled on a factory floor.
“What do you think Congress will do?” Harlan asked.
“I don’t even know what they could do. This isn’t a controlled process, what is happening to us. It’s so many overlapping layers of neglect, of failure to act in time, of energy focused in the wrong place. It’s a problem of grand scale. Scientists can gather data, and we can present it, but . . .”
She paused and rubbed at her temples for a moment, then looked back up at him, more tired than he’d ever seen her. “But we can’t make them act on it. And who knows? Maybe we’re wrong. Maybe the world isn’t ending after all . . . just changing from one state to another. Maybe we’ll survive all our mistakes. Maybe the swallows aren’t a sign of the end. Maybe they were just taking our pulse.”
“A lot of maybes,” Harlan said.
“We just process the data, Harlan. Maybe is the best we can do. Certainty is what charlatans feed to fools.”
• • • •
That was not the last time Harlan saw Nino—in fact, he saw her twice more. Once, they said a rushed hello on the sidelines of a Greenpeace press conference. Both were on the same panel: Harlan representing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Nino as the head of the non-governmental organization their Wyoming billionaire had stood up. Nino had arrived late. He didn’t even see her until they were on stage together, answering the same bland questions.
A few years later, he’d glimpsed her on the street. They had embraced hurriedly, cowled in ponchos streaming rain. She was running to catch an autolimo, again to the airport. Wet against the gray sky, her face was greenish-pale and sainted.
“How are you?” he’d asked.
So when he thought of their last time together, he thought of this time, in this anonymous bar somewhere near the capitol. A place he might not even be able to locate again.
And when he thought of their time working together, he remembered her as they had driven away from the billionaire’s ranch, singing “I read the news today, oh boy . . . four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire! And though the holes were rather small . . . they had to count them all! Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Haaaaaaaaall . . .”
How she had turned and smiled at him and punched him awkwardly on the shoulder.
They had settled, then, into the warm silence of true friendship. The prairie sunset, the arrow of the road arcing to a horizon of rose-ribbon clouds and violet wheat.
Both of them, of course, continued to tell people what they had seen. Continued to write papers, to give speeches, to sit on panels, to appear as environmental pundits on the infotainment feedstreams. They continued to fight.
And the oceans rose.
And the forests burned.