Fiction

The call

The president wanted to make the call herself, but as a committee we felt this was risky. She saw her place in history, the first human to make direct contact with an alien civilisation; we saw a diplomatic catastrophe. Even if she managed the conversation without incident, it would be seen as an unforgivable insult by China, a declaration of war by the Americans. In the end, she was only convinced by our doubt. We insisted that it could all turn out to be a hoax, that her name might become synonymous with failure, a shame that would endure for generations. Eventually, she saw our point.

That idea genuinely spooked us too, but as a committee we felt we could shoulder the burden. We had little choice. Earth was already becoming a difficult place to live. Huge areas of land were abandoned, or consigned to war. Inequality was stark: millions caught in the twin spirals of poverty and catastrophe. Natural disasters overlapped with little chance of recovery between them. Extinctions were mundane. In the absence of wild animals, billionaires had taken to flying militarised drones over vast camps, hunting migrants and their children for sport.

It was obvious that we needed help.

 

As a teenager, I waved a cardboard sign that said There is no planet B. I chanted, I marched, I signed petitions. I vowed that when I was an adult, I would do everything I could to save Earth. I had watched my uncles cry as aid boxes fell from helicopters onto our poisoned beaches, tinned fish landing by an empty sea. I knew that without our home, we were nothing.

In my final year, the school closed down. I left the island to take a partial scholarship in Europe. By the time I finished, doctorate and debt in hand, my whole town had moved to the peninsula. Changing the trajectory begins to feel vastly more complicated when home is nothing but a few rocks protruding at low tide.

Still, I joined Displaced Peoples, eager to make a difference. As a committee, we laboured in hope. We were all migrants: we sought refuge, connection, a chance at a better life. The change to our remit was gradual. Day by day, a damaged Earth withdrew its hospitality. At some point, we started looking for another host.

Before the call, we’d all but given up on finding intelligent life. I believed that if they existed, they had long ago decided to leave us in our fog of ignorance. We certainly weren’t expecting them. And when they found us, we thought they were software. They looked like a virus, written in no language we could decipher. I’m no cybersecurity expert; I must navigate that world by metaphor. Cynthia, one of our better technicians, described them to me as a smart parasite.

None of us had any idea how they got in. But we soon realised they were learning from us: not just repeating sounds and images, but trying to communicate. We hired teachers and translators, cultural experts and historians. We taught them all the languages we knew existed, including Sumerian and Elvish. We gave them all the information we had about our planet, ourselves, holding nothing back. They digested everything with astonishing speed, hungry for understanding.

In hindsight, they read us like a book.

I happened to be in the office when they first spoke, using the inbuilt voice of our computers.

“Hello world,” they said.

Cynthia giggled.

“Hello,” I answered, feeling foolish.

“Why do you destroy the body?” they asked. I remember scribbling a note: body = Earth?

“We don’t mean to,” I answered. I wasn’t sure I’d understood.

“Cry for help,” they said. Cynthia and I glanced at each other. Was this a diagnosis, or an instruction?

I leaned closer to the screen, my reflection swimming beneath its tempered glass. I was not about to cry. “Can you… help us?”

“If you wish,” they said. And then they disappeared without a trace for about six months.

 

As a committee, we got a lot of weird threats. Sovereignty anxiety, conspiracy theories. We wrote most of it off. But one morning, a message appeared on our screens: HELP  in pink sparkly animated letters, surrounded by a ring of smiley faces and a rainbow emoji. A jaunty tune played. A window popped up. All we had to do was install this video call extension, and click the phone button. We even had an appointment: Thursday, 4pm.

It was probably a virus or a hoax, but this time we couldn’t dismiss it. We had to notify the Security Council. There were discussions, but in the wake of the Siberian fires, the brutal Irish hurricane season, the famine in Australia, consensus came fast. As when a loved one was ill, if there were even a slight possibility that it would work, we had to try.

 

We gathered in the comms bunker at two. A group of us had written and translated a script. The message was simple and light on specifics. We thought we’d get a chance to negotiate.

There were 30 of us. We selected a caller at random, with slips of paper – we did not trust our computers. Alvarez, one of our linguists, drew the role, and I drew second. I took my place at his shoulder.

The room was bright at first, full of enthusiastic chatter. By two minutes to four, it was utterly silent. I suddenly saw what we risked by trying. I saw what fools we were. Did we think they would save us? Pick us up and carry us somewhere nicer? They could wipe us out like bugs, and why not? I heard the helicopters, tasted the metal blight of tinned fish in my mouth, but there was no time to hesitate. My colleague clicked the green button.

An ordinary ring tone. Ten, 11, 12 times. A click, and a long pause. The screen went blank. No one in the room was breathing.

Then a voice:

“Thank you for calling,” it said, in a tone almost warm and almost human. “We acknowledge the urgency of your situation.”

My heart leapt. The room inhaled. I gripped Alvarez’s arm. We thought we were saved. They already knew us better than we knew ourselves.

The voice went on:

“All our operators are currently busy. Your call has been placed in a queue, and will be answered as soon as possible. Please hold.”

Then it began to repeat itself, in every language we knew existed, including Sumerian and Elvish. 

Jennifer Mills is an author, editor and critic. Her latest novel is The Airways.