by Suzanne Conboy-Hill
I keep thinking we should have left it to die, you know, rather than do what we did. Seal it back up, let it go wherever it was going, let someone else find it, not us. What wouldn’t I give for it not to have been us. But there we were, limping back from a SNAFU’d mission that had almost bankrupted the government, when up pops ET in a leaky can that needs fixing. From global embarrassments to galactic heroes in one go; we could see the ticker tape and the medals, the books, the films of the books… oh yes, we thought there was a God that day—and that was before we’d even gotten the damn thing out!
Jack and me, we suited up and shimmied over on lines. I remember glancing back to check that Shaz had us covered in case it leapt out and tried to blast us with something. God knows what; the pod was little bigger than a coffin and we hadn’t detected any weaponry but then, what did we know? This thing could have been crammed with homicidal aliens the size of gnats, all tooled up with deadly devices. We chuckled about wrapping the whole thing up in a bin bag and squirting insecticide in there and Shaz mimed thrashing around with a fly swat—Whup! Wallop! Thwack!
But it wasn’t gnats. I got to the pod first, clipped on, braced for Jack’s impact. When he hit, I slid sideways and grabbed at a couple of small protrusions; instinct, you know? Well, it’s a good thing I was tethered, I can tell you, because I let go again pretty damn fast. Right up close to my visor was a viewing plate, and right up close to that was a face. Who knows what it was supposed to look like but it didn’t look good. Its mouth was open and twitching ever so slightly, there were skinny-looking fingers plucking at its throat, and its eyes kept flickering—three eyelids; top, bottom, and one inside the corners, like a cat. I couldn’t see teeth. It looked like it maybe ought to be kinda pink, but it was actually more kinda grey.
I yelled at Jack ‘Get over here!’
‘Oh Sweet Jeez!’ he said.
We peered in, it peered out. Its eyes went from black to milky and back to black and we didn’t know which was good. Maybe neither. Don’t ask me why, but I knocked on the viewing plate. Anyway, it made the thing jump and it banged its head and stared. Not exactly classic First Contact stuff, but we had communication of sorts. It knew something was out there even if it didn’t know what, and so we started to feel as if we were, you know, making progress.
I think that’s where it began to go wrong. We’re an arrogant lot, us humans. All gung-ho, diving in without asking, rescuing baby birds that don’t need rescuing. Well, maybe our baby bird did need rescuing but the truth was, we didn’t take the trouble to find out. We just wrapped it up in a blanket of we-know-best and brought the poor sod back to earth.
It’s thinking about what happened to it after we’d got it back…
Anyway, the real crapper is that we never thought, not properly. We were so full of ourselves, all puffed up and important; we’d bagged a real live alien, for God’s sake! Reminds me of those Victorian hunters bringing back dead animals and butterflies pinned to boards. They thought they were heroes but they were rapists, abusers of so-called inferior species, in it for their own glory. And I’m no better than them, am I? I never considered its origins, its home, whether one of its own kind was waiting for it. We couldn’t communicate with it, we thought it was dying, we brought it back. Then we gave it to people who imprisoned it and I watched the vidcasts of its so-called life like everyone else, not once asking how it must feel to be trapped like that because I thought being human made us right!
I don’t know when it actually died. I wish I knew that. I wish…I mean, how do you grieve when you don’t know if something’s gone? But maybe me grieving would have pissed it off. If you’d been banged up for no good reason and your guard came snivelling to your funeral, you’d most likely want to send all the screeching demons in hell after him and then shut him up in a hell of his own.
They uploaded its consciousness into a virtual world after its body finally gave out. It starved because they couldn’t get the nutrients right. So clever we can build hydroponics farms on another planet but we can’t build a new bit of alien when it’s right there under our noses. We got a special Peace Prize that year. Feted and decorated while that poor bugger’s carcass rotted away in a government lab.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day it went in-world. They’d given it a body like the one it arrived in but no one knew if that was healthy or broken or even the right sort because what if they had different forms for different functions? Like caterpillars or larvae or some such? And they’d populated the place with replicas so everywhere it looked, if it looked, it would see itself. Maybe its mutilated self, the wrong self, maybe not, but still some ghastly mirror reflecting it back at itself. It was on its own in la-la land and it was supposed to be happy about it.
I reckon that’s when the misgivings started so when Jack had sniggered into his beer and said ‘Do you think it gets any leg-over in there?’ I lost it. That was the first time I’d ever really beaten someone up so as I had to be pulled off him, but I still didn’t bother to think. Even slugging my best mate to a pulp didn’t kick-start a bit of personal reflection. I just knocked back some more beers while he got stitched up and we said no more about it.
Last year though, I went to the lab and asked if I could see Sam. First it was called John Doe, then it was Jane Doe because nobody actually knew what gender it was. The linguists hadn’t got any further making sense of its communications so they couldn’t ask. Sam suited either so Sam it was.
Inside, it looked like a whole industry had built up round it; software engineers twiddling with the Sim build, scientists setting up experiments to test for ‘presence’—whatever that is, and a little bunch of philosophers calling themselves exo-ethicists. There was another group too; bigger, noisier. I asked my contact, Clare, what they were about.
‘Games development,’ she said, flashing a fancy logo. ‘Graphics, interactivity, 3D alien encounters in your front room. Going to bring in absolute mega-bucks so it looks like jobs for life here now—way-bloody-hay!’
She was crowing and that did it. That stopped me dead. They were going to make a mint out of this poor bastard and keep it trapped in their servers until the games industry got tired of it and moved on. It dawned on me then what we’d done, what we’d condemned it to. What the hell kind of life could it have? Was it life at all? Maybe it was going mad in there. Maybe it’d been mad already when we found it. Well, we were no help, were we? No Florence Nightingale for abducted aliens, no therapy for its post traumatic stress. Of all the things we could have done with it or for it, we left it to the couch potato industry and let them make it the focus of a game. So much for homo evolutis.
I ambled over to the in-world portal and peered in. There it was, Sam, perched on a simulated sofa surrounded by simulated domesticity and looking out at replicas of itself as they mooched about the simulated village.
‘I’m going to get this sorted,’ I told it. Sam didn’t respond. Just fiddled with the suit its avatar’d been given. I patted the screen, softly like I was trying to reassure it. Then I left, my head straight, finally.
Back in the corridor, I lit a match under the smoke detector and set the alarms off. What with the rush to get out, no one saw me sneak into a cleaners’ cupboard to wait until the place was clear. When it was, I went back into the Sim room to put things right. I pulled out cables, undocked drives, crushed the server storage units, and dismantled the networking hub. Then I set fire to it all.
I’d have been happy to die there with Sam so that just for once in its miserable existence it wouldn’t have been alone, you know?
Suzanne Conboy-Hill is a UK psychologist. She has published in The NOT, Every Day Fiction, Hazard Cat, Boomunderground, and PowFastFiction. Suzanne lives in Sussex with a fluctuating number of cats and dogs, fish and visiting wildfowl. She likes rock music, pizza, and connectivity gadgets; and tries to be kind to spiders. You can find Suzanne’s web site here.