Last Close Encounter
By Brandon Klimack
THE FOLLOWING IS COMPILED from interviews with the two individuals who had the most involvement in the First Contact Councils: Eleanor Lau and the being known to Earth as Morbius. These papers, translated from Terrestrial English and Extraterrestrial Sign Language (ETSL) transcripts, endeavor to lay down the true story of the events following Earth’s contact with the Probe. These interviews were taken twenty years after the encounter.
Eleanor Lau: Do I remember the events? How could I not! It’s the biggest event in human history. Anything before or since hardly compares.
Of course, everyone remembers when the Probe landed, where they were when the world watched it blaze through the sky. We had been tracking it for months. I remember being a teaching assistant in college, reading a small article about a possible new comet that had been caught in the Sun’s gravity well. It was exciting, but not world changing. The scientific community noted it, spoke about it, and went on with their lives. A few days later the world exploded. The comet had changed direction. Midflight, just like that. No one knew how to explain it. The scientific community was in an uproar. Every telescope, visual and radio, on and around the Earth was turned towards it. The Hubble was taking countless photographs. The Very Large Array was listening in. The world was watching.
I was at Harvard at the time, and we were using the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory to help track it. I say “help” loosely, you understand. It was a comparatively small telescope, especially when you take in the sheer scope of the project. With the idea that everyone was cooperating, that a world of observations was going on, no one really thought a college observatory could make any difference.
And of course, they were right. That didn’t stop us. It didn’t stop anybody.
Soon enough, we realized this thing—this rogue, directionally aware comet—was headed in a very friendly direction. It had veered to eye Pluto, and it took a circle around Jupiter, and then it decided to skip the rest of the tour and head directly for us. You remember. The world went from explosive excitement to mass hysteria. Literal hysteria. Almost every major city saw religious riots. Cults sprang up. Scientists lost their minds. Everyone had thoughts. If you put ten people in a room you’d have fifty different theories. I, for one, fell in with the Mars Rover camp. Here was a machine sent out to explore the cosmos, and it had found us.
Speculation was abundant, to say the least. It all ended on April first which caused quite a bit of hubbub.
Morbius: You do realize I was not actually, physically present, do you not? Yes? Alright. Just clearing that up.
I—sat isn’t the right word but it’s all I can come up with—I sat—no. I isn’t correct either. We, I suppose, colleagues and I, although we aren’t colleagues as the word you use it. No. Co-workers? Scientific partners? Your language, this signing we have developed, it is so weak. No. Weak isn’t right either. Imperfect? Impractical?
I am sorry, I got off track. Let me begin again. I shall simplify matters.
I, and when I say I from henceforth it will mean the team guiding the Probe, sat light-years away, with the team, monitoring transmissions. The Probe as you call it—we called it a shuttle—the shuttle had been transiting from wormhole to wormhole following signals from your planet.
Why do you say wormhole? Like there’s some giant lumbricidae boring its way through the fabric of space. And why do you call it a fabric when it isn’t like a fabric at all?
Anyway. Thousands of light-years our shuttle had traveled, and we came out just shy of your star’s gravity well. Using thrusters, we made a small light jump that brought us to the edge of your Oort Cloud. From there we drifted further inwards, doing our best impression of a comet.
Why do you say cloud? It isn’t a cloud. It isn’t even cloud-like. Orbital conglomerate. Your analogic language gets out of hand. Like a microbe after genetic engineering.
Sorry again. We floated inward, letting gravity do our work all the while monitoring your radio and video transmissions. We learned. As the Probe reached the inner edge we drifted along, out of range of your telescopes. Years we did that. I’m using your measurements, of course. Save everybody some hassle. We paid close attention to scientific programs and historical documentaries. And of course, the most popular broadcasts. Want to judge a society? Look at what they do for entertainment. You scored a solid six on a scale of ten. Although we can’t physically mimic your languages, we did download and learn their meanings. We figured it would be easier than teaching you one of ours. When it was decided you were prepared for us, and we prepared for you, we dipped out of the cloud and headed into the inner system.
I remember when we changed course the first time. A precise right angle, something unmistakably artificial. Your planet exploded and the shuttle was getting barraged with messages aimed at it. We buzzed your Pluto to show off, orbited your largest Jovian out of genuine curiosity, and then we made a bee line to your home. Have you seen how bees fly? It isn’t straight.
Through your transmissions we learned you lived primarily, if not solely, on the land masses of your world, despite the majority of it being covered in water. Now, when we first saw your planet that’s where we figured the life would have evolved. Intelligent life, I mean. On most planets that have developed sentient species, it’s in the largest biome. It isn’t unheard of for the smaller environments to give rise to intelligence, but it is rare. Remind me to tell you of the time we found a planet with one desert five kilometers round that had a sentient cactus. When we found out that your cities were largely on land, we considered changing our trajectory. Ultimately, we decided against it. Landing in the water would be more impressive. At least to you.
So we aimed for the largest body of water we could find, the Pacific, at 48°52.6' south and 123°23.6' west, and we made touch down. At the time, we did not know the significance of the date we had chosen. Looking back, it may be my favorite part of the whole thing.
Eleanor Lau: Point Nemo. That’s where it landed. The farthest point from land on Earth. It confused a lot of people. Why not in the middle of the Asian continent? It didn’t take long to come up with the idea that, having a planet covered mostly in water, perhaps these aliens thought intelligent life would be there. I didn’t buy it. They would know; they are advanced after all. So why had they chosen Point Nemo? I didn’t know. But I wanted to find out.
After the touch down the panic peaked. Coastal towns were evacuated, islands deserted. People feared tidal waves. Of course none of that happened. The Probe flashed through the atmosphere only to stop meters from the surface. When it did touch down it made hardly a ripple. And of course militaries of the world converged immediately.
Russia, China, both Koreas, everyone with a navy had a presence. You remember. A month long standoff of “who gets the Probe.” It was a hot mess.
And then the Probe spoke. “Greetings and Felicitations!”
Morbius: We got that from an old TV show.
Eleanor Lau: Such a simple message to cause such an uproar! The effect, however, was undeniable. Here was a message from the stars! Right away the U.S., Russia, and Cuba demanded they be given the right to speak to the Probe. Japan said they should bring it to the U.N. England thought it should be the King. And then they all sent envoys. The Probe didn’t like that.
Morbius: Oh yes, we set off a low level electromagnetic pulse. I wasn’t about to be treated like a ... a—what’s the word? Someone who sells themselves to the highest bidder. Organ donor? Politician?
Either way, I wasn’t going to have it. So we shut them down equally. We figured that message was clear. It wasn’t. When we gave them power they tried it again. A second EMP. This time we left them off. And then we sent them a second message. If the EMP wasn’t clear enough, we’d make it clear.
Eleanor Lau: “Send us a representative.” It said. At first people took that as a message to send more envoys. The Probe quickly corrected itself. “Send one representative. Only one. For everybody.” It was very to the point. That’s when the problems really started.
I’ll save you the nitty-gritty, there’s at least five books dedicated to the Choice. At least. The countries came together and made a list of potential candidates. Diplomats, astronauts and cosmonauts, scientists, movie stars, royalty. It seems like everyone was considered at one point or another. Obviously, I was on that list. I had done some major work at various observatories, I was leading in my fields. And of course I jumped at the chance to speak to a life-form not of this Earth? I would be a poor excuse for a scientist if I didn’t.
You remember the process. It took five months to come to a decision. All the while we were arguing over who got to talk to it, the Probe just sat there. Waiting. It didn’t move, not even with the tide or the current. It didn’t speak. The ships around it didn’t leave either.
Morbius: I will say this for your planet. You were no worse than most of the people at this stage of development. You argue, you bicker, but eventually you get there. I waited patiently. I mean, I’ve done this before. I knew all the kinks and hiccups that could happen.
I mean, at least you hadn’t tried to nuke us!
Eleanor Lau: There was some brief talk about nuking the Probe. Military. “They disabled our best ships! Who knows what they can do?” We, that is myself and my colleagues, quickly shut them down. No, we were not bombing the first intelligent life to visit the planet. Where was I? Oh, the Choice, yes.
Well, at the end of the five months they had narrowed it down to three. Myself, of course. That’s obvious. They chose me for me diverse background; my mother was Chinese; my father was an Englishman with his roots in Africa so I represented a large swathe of the genetic diversity of Earth. My education was in astronomy, chemistry, and the like, so my knowledge was considerable. I also speak five languages. That helped, I imagine. The second was a doctor from Canada who had fought in the war and won several medals. The third was a Bollywood star.
I won. Obviously. We all know that. Again, there’s several books. Needless to say, when the decision was announced, I was beyond ecstatic. If you’ll pardon another pun, I was over the Moon. I cannot describe the feeling. It’s impossible, I’m not a poet. They ran me through a series of courses. Diplomacy, biology, etiquette. It was another half a year. I was antsy. I couldn’t comprehend why we weren’t going right to the Probe. A little more than a year after it landed, I was on a boat headed out.
Even on the boat, I was grilled and taught how to act. Posture, word choice, various speeches were typed and given to me. I wrote my own, taking inspiration from various figures, some fiction. I wanted to be the best representative I could be. Ready with quotes from Gandhi, Homer, Anne Frank, both Martin Luther and King Jr., Sally Ride who is a personal hero. I scoured our history.
I mean, I was only going to talk to an alien life-form!
Morbius: I mean, I was only going to talk to an alien life-form. That was my job. I can’t count to you how many times I’ve done this. Well, I mean I could, but it would take a while. Literally, this was every day for me. Well, not every one of your days. Almost every day of one of my days. They are quite long, by comparison.
Anyways, we sat there, monitoring through the shuttle the goings on. While you took your sweet time trying figure out what to do. We kept track of it all: collecting your broadcasts. It was the usual, convoluted ways, although it took you quite a bit longer. I mean, at this stage of development and to still have the amount of sociological diversity that you do is mind-boggling.
Sorry. We were talking about the landing.
Eleanor Lau. That’s who you chose. An admirable choice, much better than we had hoped for all things considered. We expected you to pick a general or a politician. A scientist? That was unexpected. And great. I love talking to scientists from different planets, although my favorite has to be the two civilizations that chose authors for the job. Man, could they talk.
So as Miss Lau prepared, I did the same. We called up all the tapes, all the information we had gathered and I reviewed it. Over and over. Until it went from interesting to tedious. I probably know your history better than you do. In the last month, your months, we used the shuttle for its second purpose. Of course the first was observation. The second was contact, and to do that we needed a go-between. Another strange thing to say. You chose your ambassador, we had the advantage of making ours.
Seeing as you chose a female, we decided that the opposite gender should be represented. We analyzed what you people found as attractive, played it against what you thought of as distinguished and came out with a nice, professorial black man that a student may try to sleep with. I was proud of it; I mean I don’t see the appeal in your species, but I’m sure you wouldn’t see the appeal in mine either.
We mapped the body we made onto an exoskeleton based upon your own, we improved the musculature a bit, and finally added a synthetic, naturally-grown skin. No, not naturally-grown, that would be creepy. It was real skin, but grown artificially from synthetic components. Your syntax confuses me on occasion. Sorry.
And there we sat, waiting. The most important moment in a developing civilization’s history. Just another Tuesday for me.
Morbius: They—that is you—are a very bombastic peoples. One person required an entire fleet to escort. Aircraft carriers and battle cruisers and submarines from every nation to take one woman to one shuttle. True, it was the largest moment you’d ever experienced, or ever will probably. World changing. But usually it’s a small procession, almost a holy happening. You treated it like a primetime sporting event; football for the U.S. readers, soccer for literally everyone else. Honestly it was quite refreshing! I mean, you can only be treated like a Second Coming so many times. To be a rock star? Yes, please.
Your ships surrounded the one of ours. We toyed with the idea of EMPing you again, just for fun. We didn’t of course. Professionals, that’s us. As you approached we crafted a solid platform out of the water around the shuttle, for Lau’s comfort. Rolling out the red carpet as it were. I prepared myself to make your history.
Eleanor Lau: As we approached, the Probe solidified the water around it in a half meter radius. It wasn’t ice you understand, but some kind of soft gel. It happened in the space of seconds. A further sign of how advanced, how ahead of us, they were. As soon as we were close enough, everyone took samples. The Probe didn’t seem to mind. What was removed was simply replaced almost instantly, regardless of sample size.
On the way, I had visited many of the ships in our small fleet. Dinners and balls were held in my honor. I dined with kings and sang karaoke with presidents. I got drunk with generals and played charades with the enlisted men. Honestly, I can’t tell you much more, it’s all a bit of a blur. The Probe occupied my every moment; I studied every detail I could in my cabin. All other things were secondary.
By the time we landed on the solid water island, I was the foremost expert on our visitor. That isn’t saying much for that time, we knew so little. But I wasn’t about to go in unprepared. The fleet landed, we docked. The island reformed itself, raising hills so we could simply step off the deck. The gel gave a little with each footfall, but we didn’t slip or slide on it like you’d expect. Many of the sailors were unsteady at first. I was in the lead, flanked by generals from every nation. They quickly set up camp. We spent a day on the “beach” building temporary structures. We didn’t know how long we would be there.
I was antsy to talk to the Probe, but those in charge decided we would wait until we received the go-ahead from the Probe itself. Let it make the first move.
We sat there for a week.
Most of the people were happy to sit and take samples, waiting for a response, chronicling the event like theirs would be the only surviving evidence for future generations. Myself and a few others, namely the media, were not content. I was anxious to make contact, to take that giant leap for mankind. The media was anxious for the story that would make history, that would change our species. So a small platoon of cameras and I waited until the majority of the camp, dubbed Camp 51 after the famous conspiracy, snuck out on foot and walked towards the probe. A few noticed, but they didn’t seem to think much of our action. Why would we go and make trouble?
Arriving at the Probe, the gel around us began to glow. It blotted out the stars. I got the feeling it was automated. It was a faint light, only enough to illuminate our surroundings and when we walked our footprints were briefly brighter than the rest. Up close, the Probe looked like any meteorite. I’d known this from photos, of course, but it was different to see in person. Humbling. There were no legs descending onto the gel, in fact there was no gel immediately under the object. Just water. It floated above it without any noise or visible disturbance; just an oblong, almost egg shaped rock, point downward. We resisted the urge to touch it.
At first he Probe did nothing. We were patient, though; with cameras rolling, we waited. We ended up waiting almost until dawn for the Probe to notice our arrival.
Morbius: I admit, we dropped the ball on that one. Even if there was no physical ball present. The metaphorical ball that was your first contact. That ball. We dropped it.
When you landed we expected you to rush to the object of your desire with a frantic immediacy, but you did not. I waited as long as I could within reason, but other shuttles and other civilizations called to me. I was forced to leave any news to be reported to me by my team. While you built your shanty science-town and took photographs, I introduced a nice, amoeba intelligence to the greater universe and began studying up on a race of hive-minded particulates living in a water nebulae several hundred light-years away. This occupied much of my time. My crew, that is the others I worked laterally with and not over, began taking biological samples from your ocean. We didn’t notice Lau’s approach until nearly dawn. We didn’t mean to ignore her; it was an accident you understand? My job is very demanding.
Anyway, we noticed you noticing us and waiting patiently and we scrambled. They called me, did the equivalent of woke me up. I rushed over and we quickly set things into motion. And by quickly I mean we skipped several steps, cut a few corners. Nothing necessary, mind you, we wouldn’t harm your momentous event. We quickly shed the rocky, protective layer of the ship revealing the rather plain gray metal alloy beneath; something I had forgotten about. Usually we do that as we land. I didn’t like to be too flashy. At least, not in our shuttles. They were built on a budget, really. What? We have economy too, you know.
Eleanor Lau: As the rock fell away, splashing into the water below and indenting the gel surface, everyone took an involuntary step back. Everyone but me. I can’t tell you what I did, but I’m pretty sure I smiled. The interior, the matte metal surface was perhaps unexpected. It barely reflected the lights from Camp 51. There was silence. No sounds except the sea. The doors opened, a fine, opaque mist washed out and over us, and from the Probe stepped Morbius.
Morbius: The mist? No, goodness, that wasn’t supposed to happen. It was fire retardant. We booted the system up without proper checks. Something caught fire. We had to spray as we opened the Probe.
Eleanor Lau: A man stepped from the Probe. There were some gasps, but I understood. This wasn’t the alien intelligence, but a Rover, just as I’d thought. Like the ones we had sent to the other planets in our system. It made sense that’s what we would meet with first. He wasn’t young, nor was he old, his hair salt and pepper. His skin and eyes were dark, and he wore a three-piece suit. He was handsome, if you were into men.
I froze. Not because I was surprised or wooed. I just didn’t know what to do. All that training, all that preparation, out the window. Morbius, and I use the name even though at that moment we hadn’t come up with it just to make it easier, stepped down with a jerky robotic motion, eyes closed. Slowly he opened his eyes, but didn’t seem to see me. There were several seconds before the eyes focused and found me. I smiled, bowed, straightened, held out my hand. Every speech, everything I had prepared I forgot. The hostess in me took over.
“Welcome to Earth,” I said. “Please, make yourself at home.”
Morbius: Now I don’t mean to be rude here, I don’t want to start an interstellar incident, but—you know? Let me paint you a picture.
I have been to many worlds; I have played diplomat to species and individuals who had never even thought of life outside their world, and I made them believe. I’ve been treated as a hostile, and left as a legend. I spent two years learning how to talk to a race whose language was based on very subtle movements and pupil dilation of their eight eyes; coming from a species with one, compound eye, this took me a few years to master. And I almost started a war. But what has never, never happened to me upon a first meeting is straight up being threatened.
Our diplomat robot, diplobot if you will, stepped out and what was the first thing Lau did? Bare her teeth. Anyone who knows anything about things with teeth knows that when teeth are bared, danger is imminent. Now I had done all the research, I knew smiling was a thing for you, but to see it in person as my first one-on-one contact with a human, it was jarring. Why would you do that? Why is that friendly? No. No. Don’t do that when trying to make intergalactic friends going forward. You will get shot. Or bit. Or spat on. Or some combination of those things, and you will start a war in some sectors.
On a side note, your languages have far too many words for similar constructs, and our translator wasn’t at one hundred percent. That may have been partially due to the small fire at the start, but we’re still not sure. So when Lau said “Welcome to Earth” what we heard was, for the most part, “Greetings to dirt.” I wasn’t about to take that as another insult, because I didn’t think you would be that foolhardy. We thought maybe it was some sort of religious or sociological thing, so we tried to roll with it.
Eleanor Lau: At first, the thing that would soon be called Morbius didn’t react. I think my greeting threw him off. Eventually he nodded his head and gave me the oddest attempt at a smile, almost a grimace really. I did not let it phase me. After the strange smile, he held out his hand in a very natural move and shook it. Nothing felt practiced or forced, I was impressed. “Thank you,” Morbius said, “greetings to the sky!” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I tried to take it in stride.
That first conversation, that encounter, has been written about and shown over and over again. People know it by heart, I get myself quoted in the streets. I’ll skip it here. After that fateful encounter, there were many days of meetings; I was present for all of them at Morbius’ request. He met every major dignitary on board and I’m positive all the crew. During that time, they came up with a name for him, Morbius from the doctor in “Forbidden Planet.” I forget who came up with it, but I remember the effect. This movie had a cult following, and then it exploded. There was a remake not too long after the name was chosen.
It was the beginning of a new era.
Morbius: I’d like to take a moment to point out just how absurd your world and people are. Gravity is high and almost all of the skeletal-owning species have incredibly dense bone structure; it’s insane. I don’t even have bones. Most intelligent species evolve on planets with normal gravity where they only need cartilage. Cartilaginous skeletons are by and large the norm. I’m not saying heavier planets don’t produce life, far from it. I can name ten species off my head that I’ve made contact with that have comparable living situations. But the invertebrates vastly outnumber the vertebrates in every galactic market you’ll find.
And let’s take a moment to talk about your atmosphere. So many impurities! And I’m not talking about pollution even though you should have had that nicked fifty years ago. There is so much nitrogen compared to the oxygen. And oxygen is really quite fond of life as far as the universe goes. But if I were to land in your atmosphere, I’d suffocate almost immediately. The oxygen content is too low. I have some good friends who would love the amount of nitrogen you’ve got but would cough at the, what is it, point-zero-nine argon? What I’m saying is you live in soup. Nasty soup, and you thrive. It’s weird.
What was your question again? The meeting? Was it interesting? God, no! The diplobot was on automatic most of the time. Basic answers to your basic questions. What’s space like? Who are you? Where did you come from? No one asked good questions. No one ever does.
No, I take that back. There was a small group of sailors who wanted to know how my species fornicated. I logged on for that one. They were, after our conversation, the leading xenobiologists on Earth for a month or so. That’s the only part I really remember. Sorry.
Eleanor Lau: A closing statement. How do I make a closing statement on the most important moment in my life? The most important moment in humanity’s history! There is no way to summarize it, no way I can condense it even into this interview.
Everything was filmed. We took Morbius to the mainland and his ship followed. Every country received a tour. Infighting and war ceased overnight. Within a year we had taken care of poverty and famine, and that was due to the sole help of Morbius. Year two was when the rest arrived. It changed the world, and now here we are; humanity part of an intergalactic cooperative! I’ve been to planets I never knew could exist. The moon is now home to various interplanetary ports. Europa, Titan, and Venus have alien colonies. Humanity has colonized worlds on the other side of our galaxy. I am honored to have taken a part in such an event, to help advance humanity into the next stage of its evolution. I could have asked for nothing more out of life.
Morbius: Yes, very nice, humanity’s all happy and part of the community. I myself got a house under Europa’s ice. I mean, I rent it out to tourists and business travelers. I’ve never actually stayed there, but I do own it! Makes quite a bit of money on the side, let me tell you.
Am I proud of my work? I mean, it wasn’t my best. There were a lot of problems early on, especially with the diplobot. I’m pretty sure we may have accidently sent your tenth planet into the interstellar space. Sorry about that. But am I proud? I mean, I didn’t get fired for it, so yeah, I’m happy. I’d like to have a word with your Hollywood though; they never get my character right and it’s upsetting. Multibillion dollar industry and can’t even make a good documentary. I’ve wrote letters but they never write back.
Really, though, are we done? I’ve missed quite a lot of work because of this and I do not trust the new intern I’ve got running the system. Very uppity, very excitable. You could have just read my reports. Have they been translated?
I’m sorry, what? Can I rephrase my closing statement? No. I ... Don’t really care that much. Sorry.
I am getting paid for this, aren’t I?
Brandon Klimack is a graduate of a two-year Community College in Colorado. When he is not writing, he works at an IKEA retailer. He is currently writing other short stories and finishing a novel. This is his first professional story sale.