Roger Sikes was slowly emerging from the fog of a late afternoon nap when he thought he heard a whistling sound. It sounded a lot like a falling bomb.
All at once, the windows along the front of Roger’s house imploded with a deafening boom, showering Roger and the couch on which he slept in glass and debris. He was suddenly on his feet, ears ringing, trying to make sense of the smoky rubble-strewn landscape that used to be his living room. He checked himself quickly: A little bleeding, but nothing too bad. He crunched his way across the glass to the window. The yard and street looked fine, but the porch was a mess.
Outside he discovered, adjacent to the porch and in a spot that had previously been occupied by a fine rose bush, a black thing: A cylindrical thing, maybe a foot across and four feet tall, sticking up out of a crater. Roger could feel the heat of the thing on his face from 12 feet away. Around him, fragments of what may have once been a rose bush lay smoldering. The object was a mere two feet from the exterior wall of the house.
Roger gingerly stepped a little closer to it. It was hot as hell. He continued to eye the smoldering object warily as he pulled his ringing smartphone from his back pocket.
“Roger? Where the fuck are you?”
“Can you speak up? My ears are kind of ringing here.”
“I said where the fuck are you?”
“Um … home—”
“You were supposed to pick me up for dinner an hour ago! Jesus Roger, you get out of your house like twice a year: I would think you could remember when you have a date. Did you — why are your ears ringing?”
With a sharp click, a small rectangular window opened in the cylinder. Roger startled a little, but stepped cautiously closer. The heat prevented him from getting closer than about four feet. He stared at the little rectangular opening. There was a sharp sound, like a little electric motor briefly spinning to life, and suddenly the cylinder was staring back at him from a small camera-like lens that appeared in the little compartment.
“Roger? Are you there? Why are your ears ringing?”
Roger stepped a little to his right. Whirrr! The camera followed him.
“Julie … can you come over?”
Julie waved her hand back and forth in front of the camera and watched as the lens followed. Whirrr! Whirrr! Whirrr! “You’re lucky it didn’t kill you. Another couple of feet—” She looked up at him. His wounds may have been minor, but he was still a bloody mess. “We need to get you cleaned up.”
While Julie scrounged up some alcohol and bandages, Roger took a seat at the kitchen table and delicately removed his shirt. Quite a few small shards of glass were embedded in his chest and right arm.
“That thing just fell out of the sky?” Julie asked, as she dabbed alcohol on Roger’s wounds.
“Yeah,” said Roger. I mean, I didn’t see it … I was asleep.”
“So you said,” said Julie. “I can’t believe you forgot we had a date tonight.” She plucked a sliver of glass out of Roger’s shoulder.
Roger’s eyes remained fixed on the debris field of his living room as Julie finished tending to his wounds. A shard of glass was lodged in the middle of his new flat-panel TV. “I’m pretty sure my insurance policy won’t cover an alien attack.”
Julie chortled. “Seriously,” she said, “what do you think it is? A satellite?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Considering how hot the thing is, that sounds like a reasonable guess. Surprising it didn’t burn up in the atmosphere. Or smash to bits on the ground. The thing doesn’t even look damaged.”
“Whatever it is,” said Julie, “it does seem to be functional. What kind of satellite would have a little camera in it like that? I’ll bet it’s military, like a drone or something. I wonder who we should call to report it?”
Julie and Roger swept up the glass and vacuumed the dirt from the living room carpet. Once the debris had been cleared, the damage didn’t appear to be nearly as extensive as Roger first feared. The windows along the front of the house needed replacing and his TV was history, but the TV was ancient anyway. They stapled plastic sheets from the basement over the broken windows, heated some leftover pizza in the microwave, and went out onto the porch to eat while they further inspected the object. It was a cool night in early May. The black, cylindrical thing against Roger’s house was still too hot to touch, but they could comfortably get close to it.
Whirrr! Whirrr! Whirrr!
The camera appeared to follow the closest thing that moved. But sometimes it would point in an unexpected direction, or snap back and forth between Roger and Julie as they huddled near it. At the very top of the cylinder, a circular door had opened like an iris at some point, and multiple instruments now protruded from the opening.
“I don’t remember those,” said Julie.
“They weren’t there before,” said Roger. “The top was flush flat before. It didn’t even look like it had a door.” He suddenly reached into his back pocket. “I can’t believe I haven’t even taken a picture of this thing yet!” He proceeded to take pictures with his smartphone. “Pose with it,” he told Julie with a smile. “Just don’t accidentally touch it: It’ll probably still burn.” Julie pulled out her camera as well, and the two proceeded to alternate posing with it and snapping selfies with the black cylinder between them.
Julie grinned. “Post it on Facebook!” she said.
Roger opened his Facebook app. “You choose the picture to post.”
Whirrr! Whirrr! Click! Whirrr!
The cylinder didn’t seem to know what to do. The camera snapped back and forth between them, and a new instrument suddenly appeared in the door where the camera was. It was a capsule shaped little rod and it clicked into a cradle next to the camera. “My uninvited guest,” Roger typed into a post that contained one of the selfies of him and Julie standing on either side of the cylindrical object. Julie grinned and nodded her approval, and Roger hit Send.
Less than a minute went by after Roger sent his post that his phone chimed. “That will be the first comment,” said Roger. He opened the Facebook app again, and after a moment frowned. “That’s funny. I don’t see anything.” He fiddled with the phone some more. “I’m not even sure the post went through. I don’t get the best signal out here.”
“It had to go through,” said Julie. “What was the beep then?”
“Oh!” said Roger. “I have a text message.” He opened the text app on his smartphone and felt the blood drain from his cheeks.
“What’s wrong? What is it Roger?” Julie leaned over to see Roger’s screen. He had gotten a text message from 000-100-1010. It was a photograph of Roger and Julie peering into a camera lens on Roger’s porch. The message was from the object.
“Roger, we have to report this … Now!”
Julie’s voice faded into the distance as Roger imagined the horror of all manner of strangers invading his home. He was a recluse, and aside from the occasional visit from Julie, he typically didn’t have visitors at his house. Now, he envisioned entire country descending on his home. There would be a media circus in his front lawn; the FBI and Homeland Security would come, and probably people from NASA as well. There would also be hordes of curiosity seekers, and strangers would come and take pictures of him and his home and post them on the Internet.
“No,” said Roger.
“What do you mean no? Roger, this thing is reacting to us! I think it might be … intelligent.”
“No,” said Roger again. “Not yet anyway, okay? Give me time.”
“Time!” said Julie. She bent down and peered into the camera inside the small compartment. Whirrr! Whirrr! It peered back at her. “The thing is freaking me out.”
“I wonder if there’s a way we can move it?” said Roger. “You know, like off my property. We could drop it off down the road somewhere and then call it in.”
“You’re kidding!” said Julie as she studied the impact crater that encircled the device. “Roger, this thing hit the ground hard. God knows how deep it goes. It could be ten feet long; or twenty.”
“I wonder what it’s made of,” said Roger. He tapped the side of the object with his house key which produced a metallic clink. “Titanium probably.” Inside the camera compartment and the instrument cluster on top, other materials and textures appeared to be present. The camera bay was lined with a black woven material that resembled carbon fiber. “If this thing is a satellite, it’s a damn small one, like Sputnik or something.”
“The more I think about it,” said Julie, “the more I doubt that it’s a satellite. It couldn’t have fallen out of orbit and remained functional like this.”
“You think it’s definitely military then?” said Roger.
“That doesn’t really make sense either, unless it’s part of something bigger, like an airplane, and it accidentally broke free. But if that was the case, why wouldn’t it have sustained more damage when it hit the ground? It actually looks like something that was designed to hit the ground hard, like … a probe.”
“A probe?” said Roger. “You mean like on Mars?”
“Yeah,” said Julie. “I mean, NASA has used all kinds of ways to put probes on planets, and they’re not all soft landings. This looks like something that was designed to hit the ground hard, like a spear or a javelin. Maybe it’s part of the Chinese space program and it accidentally fell in your yard instead of going to the Moon?”
Roger waved his hand in front of the camera and watched as it followed his hand back and forth. Whirrr! Whirrr! Whirrr! “Welcome to Earth!” he said. He then pulled his smartphone from his back pocket and typed a reply to the object’s text message: Hello Sputnik! Welcome to planet Earth! 🙂
Whirrr! Click! Gizzzzz!
Julie shook her head. “Okay Roger, it’s time for me to take off for the night. I’ll give you a few days, but then you have to report this. I’m not kidding!”
“Yes mommy,” said Roger.
“I’ll call in the morning and check up on you, okay? You be careful with this thing: For all we know, it could be radioactive. Or it might pull a laser out of some hole and zap you.”
“I’ll be careful, I promise,” said Roger, and he hugged Julie goodnight.
Roger awoke the next morning to the beeping of his smartphone on the bedside table. He snatched it up blearily and looked for the offending app. It was Facebook: Someone was sending him a friend request. He opened the app: The request was from Sputnik.
Roger poked his head out the door warily and checked on the object. Except for the brief whirrr sound as the camera pointed at him, it sat silent and unimposing in its impact crater and did not seem to have sprouted any new openings or appendages in the night. He sat down at his desktop computer with a freshly microwaved English muffin and accepted Sputnik’s friend request. He had just clicked to open Sputnik’s Facebook page when the phone rang.
“Roger?” came Julie’s voice. “What the fuck?”
“Let me guess,” said Roger, “you got a friend request from Sputnik.”
“Yeah. What’s going on, Roger?”
“I dunno,” said Roger, “but Sputnik has seven posts on his Facebook page. Three of them are pictures of us together on the porch, two are pictures of just me, and the other two are — I’m not sure — kind of gibberish … I think.”
“Maybe you should just come over.”
Fifteen minutes later, Roger heard the front door slam as Julie let herself in. “There’s fresh coffee in the pot there,” said Roger, gesturing toward the kitchen.
“I talked to Stump this morning,” said Julie as she headed into the kitchen. “He said he can give you a good deal on repairing those windows, and he can come over today. “I didn’t mention Sputnik.”
“Awesome,” said Roger. “Maybe I can throw a tarp or something on the thing while he’s here.”
“Honestly Roger,” said Julie as she pulled up a seat next to Roger, steaming coffee in hand, “you’re so fucking paranoid. Show me the gibberish you were talking about.”
Roger slid his chair a little to the side to make more room for Julie and he gestured toward the computer. Sputnik’s Facebook page was on the screen, and the latest post read:
Usually I don’t learn post on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very compelled me to check out and do it! Your writing taste has been amazed me. Thanks, very great article.
Julie’s brow wrinkled as she read the post. “Eh … what the fuck?” she said. “What blog?”
“Oh,” said Roger, grinning broadly at Julie, “did I forget to tell you? Sputnik has a blog. Also, a Twitter feed. The gibberish there is actually from his blog. Here—” Roger opened a browser window to Sputnik’s blog. Julie leaned in and read the post at the top of the blog page:
What i do not understood is in truth how you’re now not really a lot more smartly-favored than you might be right now. You are so intelligent. You realize therefore considerably on the subject of this matter, produced me in my view believe it from so many varied angles. Its like men and women aren’t interested until it’s something to do with Woman gaga! Your own stuffs great. Always take care of it up!
“What in the name of sweet fuckery is this shit?” said Julie.
“Scroll down,” said Roger, with a smile.
Julie began to scroll. “A cat video … another cat video … more cat videos.” She looked at Roger. “So … a space probe crashes in your yard, takes pictures of us, creates a Facebook account and friends us, creates a blog dedicated to gibberish and cat videos — Roger, I really think it’s time to call NASA.”
“Not yet,” said Roger. “Do you know what it means?” he asked, nodding to the screen.
“No … it means something?”
“I think so,” said Roger. “The text there looks like auto-generated crap. It’s junk text that spammers and spam programs use to try to get past spam filters. These text posts may have appeared as comments in Sputnik’s spam filter.”
“So Sputnik didn’t actually create the text?”
“I doubt it. Sputnik seems to be more than a simple probe: It’s showing signs of intelligence. When you called me right after it landed at my house and I answered the phone, I was standing right in front of it. I think it watched me talk to you, and heard my voice, and it was able to deduce that what it was seeing and hearing correlated with the signals from my smartphone. It’s like it takes in all the information in its immediate environment and all the electronic information that it detects and it’s able to sort it all and associate some of the electronic signals with the activity in its immediate surroundings. It determined that the signals given off by my smartphone were me communicating, and it’s trying to communicate back.”
“Through gibberish and cat videos?”
“It probably doesn’t know that it’s gibberish. I mean, 99.999% of Internet content is crap. For every one comment that a real human leaves on a blog, there are probably a hundred spam comments in the spam filter. All Sputnik is doing is taking the most common Internet traffic it detects and it’s aping that content back to us. Gibberish and cat videos. It thinks it’s talking to us.”
“Crap Roger … you think this thing is alien, don’t you?”
“Don’t you?” asked Roger. “Come on: You know you’re going there. The thing was heinously hot when it landed — hot enough to melt most metals I’m sure — but it seems to be undamaged and perfectly functional. There are no markings on it to signify that it came from the US or China or any other country, and if it were a probe intended for the Moon or some asteroid, I really can’t see why or how it would have the ability to hack into a Wi-Fi hotspot to broadcast cat videos and create a Facebook account.”
“All the more reason,” said Julie, “why you need to call NASA or the FBI or somebody about it. Like Today.”
“Not yet,” said Roger. “I need time.”
Julie and Roger fought for an hour over calling the authorities before Julie finally surrendered and promised Roger once again that he could have a few days. “But no more than that,” she had said.
Stump came in the afternoon and, as promised, repaired Roger’s shattered windows at a reasonable cost. He didn’t seem at all curious what was under the blue tarp by the porch. He was, however, awfully curious as to what exactly happened to the windows.
“Vandals,” said Roger.
Stump looked up and down the desolate country road on which Roger lived. There wasn’t another house in site. “Vandals?” he asked, skeptically. “From where?”
“You got me!” said Roger, throwing his hands in the air in feigned bewilderment. “You know kids these days.”
Roger knew Stump likely didn’t buy it, but Stump was also the kind of guy who knew not to ask too many questions. If Roger’s windows had all gotten blown out during some kind of weird wild orgy, Stump just didn’t want to know. He finished the repair job and Roger thanked him and paid him and he was on his way.
Roger spent the rest of the day perched with a laptop on his porch by Sputnik, attempting to talk to his new companion. When Roger returned to Sputnik’s WordPress blog in the late afternoon, he saw that the black cylinder had been busy, posting more cat videos, trite Internet memes of the sort usually bandied about on Facebook, and BuzzFeedesque listicles. Sputnik had also, strangely, developed a following and many of his incoherent posts were not only liked but reblogged by others. When Roger visited the blogs of some of Sputnik’s follows however, he discovered that they too appeared to be robots, or spam-bots, or simply scammers who advertised on their own blogs various get-rich-quick schemes and the like.
“You’re doing this all wrong!” Roger said to Sputnik.
Whirrr! Whirrr! Whirrr!
Roger tried penning a lengthy response to one of Sputnik’s posts. You’re doing it wrong, he wanted to say. Your posts are all shit! This isn’t intelligible. Your followers are spam-bots!
Within seconds of posting a comment on one of Sputnik’s posts, Sputnik posted a response:
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Roger couldn’t suppress the groan. “For an alien,” he said, “you sure are stupid.” He tried another tactic and introduced Sputnik to Google and Wikipedia. “These are probably still not the best sources of information,” he said to the black object by his porch, “but they’re better than BuzzFeed and Facebook.” He spent the rest of the evening pointing out various bits of information to Sputnik: Websites that described the numerous components of the Internet; a Wikipedia page on the Global Positioning Satellite network; a website on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster; and various other bits of human technology and communications, and history. He tried his best, both with voice and with websites he visited on the laptop, to introduce Sputnik to a broad range of intelligible material available on the Internet. Sputnik seemed, if the whirrring of his camera could be taken as a guide, attentive to the lesson.
When Roger went to bed that night, his smartphone alerted him to a Facebook poke from Sputnik. He muted the phone, but checked Facebook before closing his eyes for the night. Sputnik’s posts had indeed seemed to improve: Rather than cat videos and Internet memes, Sputnik was now posting about nuclear reactors and communications satellites.
In the morning, when Roger turned on the TV, he saw a CNN image of an uninteresting gray and white building far in the distance behind a reporter in the foreground. At the bottom of the screen, the text read: Breaking News: Possible Meltdown at Brunswick Plant. Roger watched for awhile. Apparently, a nuclear reactor somewhere in New England had suffered some kind of cyber attack and was close to a full scale nuclear meltdown. That’s a weird coincidence, thought Roger, as had just introduced Sputnik to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster the night before. He put on a pot of coffee, microwaved a sausage biscuit, and sat down at his desktop computer. Sputnik had been busy that morning posting links to news articles on the Brunswick plant, both on his blog and on Facebook. Sputnik had also been posting news articles on an unrelated story: Apparently some time in the night, two GPS satellites had gone wonky, inexplicably activated their control rockets, and propelled themselves out of geosynchronous orbit. One of the two satellites was now on a path that would take it into the Earth’s atmosphere in a matter of days while the other now orbited the Earth in an unstable elliptical orbit.
“Are you shitting me?” Roger asked the black object by his house. “Was this you?”
Whirrr! Whirrr! Whirrr!
“Oh Christ Almighty!” he said, retrieving his smartphone from his pocket. “You had better come over,” he said when Julie answered the phone.
Julie was at Roger’s house in fifteen minutes. A half an hour later, so was the FBI, Homeland Security, and the media circus that Roger had dreaded. A metallic net was wrapped around the instrument cluster at the top of Sputnik, preventing it from sending or receiving electronic signals, while for three days earth-moving equipment dug a trench in Roger’s lawn, extending from the street to the edge of the house. Sputnik, it turned out, was twenty-five feet in length. It was extracted and hauled away to some unknown government facility.
Although it had been leaked almost immediately that an alien probe had crash-landed at Roger Sike’s house, the government was quick to quell the story. The object, they said, was a top-secret military satellite and nothing more. It had been knocked from it’s orbit by the same act of cyber terrorism that had also knocked two GPS satellites from their orbits and sent one nuclear reactor to the brink of meltdown. Roger and Julie had little choice but to play along: It was made clear to them that they could easily disappear into a dark military prison somewhere for aiding a terrorist enemy.
Roger was actually somewhat relieved by the cover story. Had it been publicly acknowledged that an alien probe had landed in his yard, he would never have known privacy again. As it turned out, the celebrity status of having a top-secret military satellite crash land in one’s yard only lasts for about two weeks, after which one might, as Roger eagerly did, retreat once more into seclusion.
“I’m sure,” said Roger one evening when he and Julie were again able to have a private conversation, “that it wasn’t intentional. It’s just that everything is so interconnected now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Cars,” said Roger. “Think of cars. They used to be all mechanical: You turn the steering wheel, and that turns a mechanism that turns the wheels. You push the accelerator, and that activates a pump that feeds fuel to the engine. Your car out there in the driveway … It isn’t like that. When you turn the steering wheel or put your foot on the accelerator, it just sends a signal to a computer, and that computer decides how much to turn the wheel, or how much fuel to send to the engine. Your car is also connected to the Internet. If you lock your keys in it, you can call a special number and they’ll remotely unlock the door for you. The police can probably turn the engine off remotely if they want. And of course, it’s connected to the GPS system, so its exact location is always known. Our whole world is like that now. Every action we take is buffered from the physical world by an interconnected network of computers. Planes, trains, cars, banking, freight, security. Virtually all of our communication is through computer networks now — texts, Skype, email, Facebook, Twitter. Buy any underwear lately? Go to a website, click Add to Cart, a little robot in a warehouse somewhere fetches the underwear. Another robot puts it in a box, and a third robot flies it to your door. Did they send the wrong item? Call customer service, and you can talk to another robot there. We’re living in the Matrix, Julie.”
“Sputnik was probably designed to seek out intelligent life and establish communication. It was probably ideally suited to do just that. But we humans, if you look at the absolute shit that passes as ‘communication’ in our world — cat videos and spam and mindless Facebook posts — we’re just idiots. I don’t think Sputnik was designed with us in mind.”
Before going to sleep that night, Roger looked again and smiled at the first text message he had received from Sputnik. He opened his Facebook app and scrolled through a few mindless posts and he put his phone away again. He felt empty.
Years past and the day the Sputnik came faded into memory. Roger saved the text he had received and took pleasure in looking at it on occasion. Sputnik’s Facebook page and blog remained as well: Sputnik had become yet another deceased friend on Facebook that Roger couldn’t bring himself to unfriend.
Julie moved away, and Roger no longer had any visitors at his house. One day though, she called him up and invited him to come out and visit her at her new home. She lived only three hours away, so he loaded up his car one day, typed Julie’s new address into his GPS navigator, and set out on a road trip. Continue sixty-four miles, then take exit 163, on right, came the strangely soothing feminine voice of the navigator, and Roger obeyed. In zero point four miles, turn left … Navigate off road. Roger pulled to the side of the road and studied the map on the navigator’s display. Something wasn’t right. Turn right and continue zero point two miles. That definitely wasn’t right: There was nothing but woods on his right, and the only turn was the one he had just made. His phone beeped. He had gotten a text from 000-100-1010. It read: “Turn right and continue zero point two miles.” Roger yanked the navigator off the dashboard, leaped from the car, and into the woods. Veer left … Continue zero point one miles … Stop! Roger stopped and looked around excitedly. It took a minute, but eventually he spotted a faint blue glow under some nearby leaves. A black cylindrical object was there, protruding no more than eight inches from the ground — just enough for the communications array in its dome to deploy. It was covered with a heavy layer of leaves and all but invisible. He got another text from 000-100-1010. It read, “Shhh!”
— R. S. Huber
This ain’t great, I know.
This actually started out months ago as a very different story. It was longer then, and involved a large invasion of the javelin-like probes. But the story meandered about hopelessly.
I do think that the idea here is quite interesting, even if the execution may be lacking. Perhaps I’ll revisit this again one day and see if I can’t clean it up further.