The first power was nature. In humanity’s infancy, power was not yet ours to hold. Laws and forces beyond human comprehension shaped our lives, and everything we did was aimed at survival.
The second power was spirit. Incomprehensible forces took on form and personality. We struggled to comprehend their whims, and power was born from divine approval.
The third power was law. We decided what we thought right, and set principles above any king. Power became at last a human thing.
The fourth power was money. The forms we built took on life of their own, and the power we created escaped from our grasp and devoured us.
The fifth power is nature. We understand the wisdom in the forces that first shaped us, but now we adapt to them, learn from their patterns, and dance with them. Power is ours, but not ours alone, and we can create harmony with the world.
—from The Dandelion Manifesto, v.2.3, released December 2043
In the bad old days (the commentary said later), nation-states had plans laid in for this sort of thing. They’d have caught the ship on satellite surveillance. They’d have gotten in the ground with sterile tents and tricorders and machine learning translators, taking charge. In a crisis, we still look for the big ape. But the view from below has long since supplanted the view from above, so there were no satellite pictures committed indelibly to collective memory. Instead, the embedded water sensors near Bear Island suddenly sent out alerts for skyrocketing phosphate levels. And instead of a big ape shouting orders, the world got me.
It was 3:22 a.m. on Monday, March 2, 2083, and I was on call for sensor events along with eleven other volunteers for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Network. I was first in the ground, even though our consensus judgment of the reading was malware noise, because I was already up with Dori. She’d been awake and crying for well over an hour, and I almost cried myself at the excuse for a handoff. I woke Carol with truly sincere apologies—but I had to go check out a Watershed emergency, see if you can get this baby back to bed.
If it’d been ten degrees colder, she wouldn’t have bundled Dori into a sling and come out with me, and this would’ve been a different story. But the kid quieted down as soon as we stepped out onto our walk, and I admitted that there probably weren’t really dangerous pollutants on site, and if there were my wife and kid could stay back. The night was balmy and smelled of lilacs. The illumination curfew had kicked in, and stardust stretched across the old Maryland suburbs like a parade scarf. My mesh asked me if I wanted night vision, and I told it quietly to fuck off.
“In a couple of months it’ll be too hot to take her outside most nights,” said Carol, and we held her up to the moon, and snuggled her against our chests, and she fell asleep in the car seat of the Watershed-sponsored ride as soon as it started moving.
“You will reach your destination in twenty-eight minutes,” the ride told us, and we looked at each other and at the baby, and then slept happily in each other’s arms the whole way.
At the drop-off Carol took the sling and managed to shift Dori without waking her. Then we walked across the bridge and picked our way along the path—I didn’t turn on night vision, but I did up the tactile gain in my soles—all the way to the north-side cliffs. And there we found a palace, where before had been only root-cracked stone.
Silver, I thought at first, gleaming in the moonlight. But I blinked and saw black metal with the iridescent sheen of a grackle. Human eyes weren’t made for it. When I toggled my lenses to night vision, the palace shed a rainbow of heat across the budding clover.
I messaged the network: Not a false alarm. Not a spill. Need more sensors. I wasn’t sure what else to say, or if sending a picture would get me accused of snoping. Hell, I wasn’t entirely convinced the thing would show up on-screen.
“You see that?” I asked Carol, nervous until she nodded. She wrapped her arms around Dori.
“Palace” was the closest word I could find, and it wasn’t very close. It was a quarter-acre spread of spires and domes, fractal at the tips, narrow peaks spiraling in intricate patterns. It sloped down from three larger promontories, swooping at the edges as though it wasn’t quite ready to meet the ground. It ticked softly, like a cooling pan. As I watched, part of it seemed to fold in on itself, and then out again showing a different design. Then another, and after that another, and I realized that it was constantly renewing itself one section at a time, a shifting landscape mesmerizing as a sunset.
Dori shifted and murmured against Carol’s chest. I scanned for radiation, let out a breath when I found nothing worse than background.
“What are they dumping in the water?” Carol whispered. “And why?”
I queried the sensors again. “It’s tapered off, but we’re still getting weird organics.” Whatever’s in there, they make waste. And dump it. “It’s not just a bot probe.”
I thought of old movies: people approaching spaceships with their arms wide in welcome, incinerated by lasers. I should go home. I should send them home. But my breath came fast and short, like the moment the midwife had placed Dori in my arms, like the first time Carol’s lips brushed my ear. I wondered if a thousand of these things were dropping across the world, or if this was the only one. I imagined telling Dori, years from now, that we could’ve met people from another planet, only we were trying to protect her. Or we could stay—and tell her that she met them.
I gripped Carol’s hand. We shared a look, a nod, and I leaned briefly against her, grateful for unspoken agreement. Some things are more important than keeping your kid safe.
Screw being too nervous to tell anyone, though. Whatever risk we took for ourselves, we owed something to the rest of the world. I started my lenses recording, fed the livestream into the network. I flicked from ordinary vision to heat to electromagnetism, sending all the data I could gather. On that last setting I caught a darker patch near the palace’s center. I tried heat again, increasing the sensitivity. The same section showed cooler, spring green where the rest burned orange and yellow.
“Something’s broken there,” I told Carol. Confidence faltering, I added, “I think. There’s a cool patch, sort of jagged, and not in a symmetrical way.”
“It doesn’t look like it crashed. Are they sending out, I don’t know, some sort of distress beacon?” She stopped. “Maybe the organics are a distress beacon?”
I started giggling. “Help! Poop!” I’m sorry, I know this isn’t the sort of quotability people look for in historical events. But Carol started laughing too, and neither of us could stop, and then Dori woke up and started crying and we froze. There are humans who get vicious when they hear a baby wail. But no lasers burned out to shut us up. I tapped my mesh to view the diaper monitor. “Guess what?”
What was I supposed to do? Carol unhooked the sling, and I laid it down on the chilly grass, and I changed Dori’s diaper right there in front of an alien artifact of unknown origin. I hoped Carol was wrong about the organics, because I wasn’t quite willing to try a urine-soaked pad of smarthemp as our first communication attempt.
“Are you still recording?” asked Carol.
“Yep. This is for posterity.” We switch off after diaper changes, so I pulled on the sling, adjusting it for my thinner shoulders, and cuddled Dori. “Hope you’re appreciating this, posterity.”
Carol isn’t obsessed with sensory extension the way I am, but she knows every type of communication technology there is and she’s always happy to help brainstorm. “Okay, assuming they don’t talk to each other through effluent streams, they obviously know enough about our signals to find an uninhabited spot close to a big city. Are they sending anything that looks like a phone signal? Dandelion network encryption? God help us, wifi?”
Copyright © 2022 by Ruthanna Emrys