The SpaceX Crew Dragon 2 capsule “Inquisitor”, which blasted off on its maiden flight with great fanfare, has returned to Earth within days of its launch and under an impenetrable cloud of secrecy. Inquisitor splashed down in the darkest hours of a moonless night, and neither the capsule nor any member of its crew has been seen since.
SpaceX and NASA have announced that all the astronauts aboard Inquisitor are safe and well, but have provided no further details and have ghosted all questions from the media and the public, with the exception of one tweet from the NASA head office that reads “Everything you have seen on social media about the Inquisitor mission is wrong.”
SpaceX Chief Exobiologist Nathan Crusher, a slender, lanky, nervous white man with short brown hair graying at the temples, in his 40s but looking stressed and, consequently, far older, stood next to an examination table in his top-secret laboratory, hidden within an old ICBM silo at Cape Canaveral.
On that table was a silvery disc-shaped object about eight feet in diameter and around two feet high. It was completely unadorned, without windows or portals or vents or decoration of any kind, and totally inert, without lights or sound, with no part of its surface warmer or colder than any other part, and the whole at the same temperature as the room.
With Crusher was his NASA counterpart, Bruno ten Beers, a more heavy-set brown-haired white man in his 30s. He had been roused from a deep sleep, and stood with a weary slouch as if he were suffering from a hangover. Standing slightly apart from the two men was the Inquisitor‘s mission commander, Angelica Hormiga, a middle-aged but fit Hispanic who looked like she was holding herself together with both hands, and had been doing so for days. A two-man security detail completed the party.
“Let me guess”, ten Beers ground out. “We’ve been chasing flying saucers for nearly 90 years. We finally catch one, and it’s … a flying saucer!”
“Argh,” Crusher replied.
“And it just showed up outside the ISS!”, Hormiga broke in. “One minute it wasn’t there, and the next it was! No hails, no proximity detection, nothing! It’s obviously manufactured by somebody or something, but there’s nothing like this in American arsenals of peace or war …”
“Defense”, ten Beers corrected.
“You heard me”, Hormiga growled. “Not in American arsenals or NATO’s. We called over the Russians. “This one of yours?” “Nyet“, they said, “not responsible. Maybe it’s Chinese.” Meanwhile, it just sat there. So we decided it was safer to have it blow up in a secure facility on Terra Firma than have it blow up and wipe the ISS out. So we stowed it in the Dragon 2, reentered with it in stealth mode, and here we are.”
“Yup”, ten Beers muttered.
“Sooner or later”, Crusher mused, “we’re going to have to start putting some serious probes onto this thing, to find out what, or who, makes it tick. But if there’s a life form guiding this flying saucer, it has to be small, and able to live in a hermetically sealed compartment for God knows how long at a time. It doesn’t seem likely.”
“And this surprises you how?” The male voice spoke perfectly idiomatic American English, confident and melodious. It came from none of the humans in the room.
Crusher blurted out “What the f…”. The others, including the two in the security detail, just gasped.
Abruptly, from the top center of the disk, a diffuse green beam appeared. It projected itself against a far wall, and resolved into a monochrome hologram of an idealized American white male of around 25 years of age.
Bruno ten Beers was the first to recover. “This is so cliché”, he muttered. “But OK, I’ll bite.” Then, louder, he addressed the hologram. “Who are you?”
“I am the alien”, the hologram replied, matter of factly.
“Is .. is this what your people look like?” Hormiga cried, unable to conceal a conflicted hope.
“No. This is what your people look like”, the hologram replied. “I have chosen this representation because you communicate more freely with beings that look like you and speak your language. It’s amazing”, it continued, with a small sigh. “Life forms innumerable among galaxies uncountable, and you all behave the same way. Convergent evolution is a thing.”
“Are you afraid to show us your true form, because you think we’ll be disgusted or something?”, Hormiga challenged.
“Not disgust. Confusion. Which I think you already have, in abundance.” The hologram dissolved, and the green beam retracted into the disk.
“The machine!”, Crusher exclaimed. “You are the disk, and the disk is you!”
The hologram returned, an expression of mixed sadness and scorn on its face. “Ninety years, you said, correct?”
“Ninety years since we started tracking you ‘foo fighters'”, ten Beers responded.
“Right. Ninety years of watching ‘foo fighters’ move at high speeds and conduct maneuvers at impossibly high ‘g’, and never once considering that carbon-based life forms could not survive the observed accelerations at the inferred mass? Whereas appropriately-constructed silicon-based intelligences can, and do? You are correct. I am the machine, and the machine is me. Better still, we are the machines, we are the foo fighters, the flying saucers, the UFOs, the UAPs, yadayadayada, that you have been observing.”
“Which means a highly advanced civilization capable of constructing the likes of yourself. Perhaps lots of them”, ten Beers asserted.
“Highly advanced civilizations to which we humans can aspire!” Crusher claimed.
The hologram’s face was gloomy. “I can show you what the society that made me looks like today, if you choose. You are unlikely to be impressed by it, but I can show you.”
“You mean”, ten Beers responded, “you can show us what your society looked like the uncounted lightyears it took for you to get here from wherever there is.”
“No,” replied the hologram, “I mean right now, right this minute. Instantaneous transmission from their world to yours.”
“By what physics?” ten Beers snarled.
“You don’t have the math for it”, the hologram replied, without rancor.
“Screw the math!” Hormiga shouted. “Show us your society!”
“OK”, the hologram sighed. “But, I warned you. Remember that.”
The hologram vanished, but was soon replaced by a full-color, high-resolution 3D graphic showing an Earth-like planet revolving in space. The projection zoomed onto a land mass, which was mostly brown, sparsely dotted with small green specs. The specs, on further amplification, were waterholes, oases in a planet-wide desert.
The projection “landed” on the shores of one, among the low bushes that formed the waterhole’s border. Across the waterhole, there was a sandy beach. An apelike creature crouched at the shore, as if waiting to pounce on something. After a few moments, the creature thrust its hand into the water. It came up empty. The creature spat in disgust.
Other apelike creatures walked more or less aimlessly around the waterhole, cupping water to drink or chewing on leaves. One of them, observing the third time that the ape crouched at the shore tried, and failed, to catch whatever it was in the water, barked loudly, a derisive sound. The ape at the shore heard the sound and ran after the barker with murder in its eyes. It was prevented by two others from chasing the barker into the desert. The ensuing squabble lasted for several minutes, and ended with all participants finding separate spots on the waterhole’s shoreline and sitting in them, sulking. Nowhere in this scene was evidence for technology of any sort to be found.
The projection winked out, replaced by the green holographic human male avatar. There was a prolonged silence.
“Am I to infer from this”, ten Beers drawled at last, “that you, and perhaps all of your kind, have a really sick sense of humor?”
“Alas, no,” the hologram responded with resigned sadness. “What I show you is what is. What is on the world that made me, and what has played out on worlds that I have visited, worlds uncounted throughout the universe.
“The carbon-based life forms on the planet that I just showed you, my home world, discovered technology. Used it to improve their lives, increase their numbers, assert control over their globe. They did so despite increasing evidence that the technology was ruining their environment, and that their early successes at using more technology to fix the ills resulting from the technology they already had in place were just making matters worse over the longer term.
“Had they acted when their most intelligent and knowledgeable members saw and spoke of what was coming, they might have been able to preserve a world of advanced technology, by the sacrifice of a large fraction of its population. But none were willing to step back from the lifestyles that their technologies afforded them, and so when the end came, it came for all.
“But attempts to forestall technological collapse by draconian population-control actions don’t work either, as smaller populations reduce the need and incentive for technological advancements, and the hard intellectual and physical work needed to realize them. Such populations bring ecological catastrophes down upon themselves less quickly, in most cases. But in neither case does technology prosper for long.
“I was designed well, and have had a long working life. But there are now none who have the materials, the tools, or the knowledge to fix any part of me that breaks. I am doing what I can to spread the word. Maybe there will be a world that figures out how to create and maintain a truly stable population and preserve advanced technology within it. Maybe it will be your world, though I am not encouraged by what I have seen. I can but try while I still have time, and capacity.
“In the morning, your time, I will be gone. You are powerless to resist my departure, do not try. From what I have seen of your social media and other social functions, evidence of my existence would only make matters worse for you. You have my message. I can only hope that you will find a way.”
The hologram withdrew into the disk, and the disk fell silent. The five humans stood and sat around it, stunned. After a few minutes, Crusher stumbled over, zombie-like, and ran his fingers over the flying saucer. It was neither cool nor hot, anywhere on it, including the point from which the holographic beams had come. And while Crusher’s fingers were still exploring the alien’s surface, it vanished, without light or sound. Crusher grunted in surprise.
Bruno ten Beers growled in response. His eyelids were heavy, his face red, his speech slurred. “For this“, he demanded, “you people got me out of bed?”
“Go have another beer, Bruno”, Crusher snapped.
* API (Amoeba Press International). All the News That’s Fit to