When they came, the world changed forever.
Karden was there. All the long years of his life beforehand seemed to condense to insignificance before the magnitude of what happened in that short time. What happened to the world, what happened to him.
People had of course been telling tales of UFOs for decades. Sites on the net were devoted to conspiracy theories of alien observers, varyingly monstrously evil, supernaturally benevolent, or merely cold and inscrutable. Those who believed in such things assumed it was all being kept secret by the government, the aliens themselves, or perhaps both. Then there were the apocryphal stories of abductions, which always managed to happen in some isolated field or patch of wilderness far from reliable observers, let alone video equipment.
That was not how the aliens made themselves known.
On the cool spring day when it all began, Karden was making a rare visit to the east building faculty lounge. Someone had brought in a big snack assortment tray, and he was attempting a surreptitious raid to loot some of it without getting pulled into extraneous conversations. Chairman of the History Department, and considering retirement, he was getting old, slowing down, a bit thin in the limbs and thick in the middle. He’d have to rely on guile rather than speed.
His plans failed.
“Professor Karden! Come look at this!” It was Professor Snel, a mathematician notable for her brilliant work, thick goggle-like eyeglasses, disheveled clothes, and usually, quiet shy manner.
She was watching television, along with a dozen other academics.
That by itself by itself might have been enough to get Karden’s attention, but that Snel had yelled something ensured it. He turned around, snacks carefully in hand, to see what they were all looking at.
Karden almost dropped his plate.
There on the screen, on repeating cycle, was a news report. Astronomers had observed, near the outer edges of the solar system, powerful bursts of light and some very strange subatomic particles. Twelve simultaneous bursts, in a grid pattern. That was not what was most notable, however, for out of those bursts emerged a group of objects, objects flying in formation at astonishing speed.
That they were detectable at all at that distance implied they were… large.
“What ARE those?” someone gulped.
“Too small to tell,” said someone else.
“No, not at all! We may not be able to get better visual resolution at that distance, but astronomers are already getting enough information to find out plenty about them!” said Snel.
As the growing crowd watched, a hastily-assembled group of panelists debated the nature of the objects. Some pundit or other wondered whether they were an unknown natural phenomenon.
“Natural?” scoffed Karden, “And when, exactly, did natural objects fly in perfect formation?”
The journalists finally patched in an astrophysicist to join the discussion. He pointed out that the objects were flying directly toward the world, their trajectory precisely coordinated with its orbit around the sun.
“Uh oh,” said Snel, her voice returning to its usual near-whisper.
Another pundit onscreen theorized they were giant projectiles, missiles aimed by unknown but inconceivably powerful enemies to destroy the planet itself.
“Or, as a simpler explanation, they could be ships,” said Karden.
“Very large ships,” whispered Snel.
The lounge was getting full. Someone in the back quipped, “Ships? Naturally, Karden, as the expert in first contacts between cultures, you’d be hoping to finally see one first hand.”
Karden replied in an acrid tone, “As you know, my work is more… terrestrial. However, the actual history of such first contacts has never encouraged me to want to be on the receiving end of one. In any case, none of us will have a choice.”
Snel looked over at him. “At that speed, they’ll be here in five days.”
Karden returned to his large but woefully cluttered office, cleared a stack of teetering papers to make room, and with help from a couple of graduate students, rigged up a spare monitor on news feeds. Over the next few days, with varying company, he followed developments and public reaction.
There were those who expected the end of the world and those who expected its salvation, and a few perhaps who expected both. Some panicked and fled the cities with their families and vehicles loaded with supplies. Others dug bunkers and stocked them with weapons, awaiting the worst. Crazies gathered in the desert or on rooftops to dance to the arrival of the aliens, wish them welcome, or ask them for boons. Most simply went to work as always, hoping things would turn out all right.
The nations of the world mobilized their armed forces, reserves were called up, aircraft flew regular patrols on high alert. None knew if such preparations would help, or would even be necessary, but none wanted to find out what would happen if they didn’t make them.
As the objects grew closer, astronomers were able to get a better look at them.
“Those are definitely ships,” mumbled Snel, who’d made herself at home in a chair nearly surrounded by stacked books.
“And what ships!” added Karden.
Each was larger than the greatest oceangoing vessel by far, the length of an urban center. One could imagine crews with the populations of small towns manning them. And they were beautiful. They had, to be sure, an alien aesthetic at work, but they were magnificent matches of form to function. Whoever built them had been building such things a long time. No experimental prototype, no new feat of untried engineering, could have looked like that! They made the world’s handful of little orbital spaceships look like the works of some amateur tinker.
All twelve of them followed a standard design – roughly cylindrical, cut off about three-quarters of the way around their circumference to make a flat top, with tapered bows and bright glowing engines at the stern. They had clean lines and gracefully arcing curves, with minor variations here and there, just as one encountered with individual surface warships over the lifetime of a class
But these ships were decorated with colors and touches of metallic gold! The designs were placed so as to highlight an eye-catching portion of a ship, or in elegant geometric patterns elsewhere. It was just enough to enhance the beauty of the ships without overwhelming it. Though all the decoration followed a common aesthetic, no two were done exactly alike.
To Karden’s eye, they resembled painted and gilt sailing ships of centuries past, like the hulls of fast low-slung galleys, only far, far larger. Once pictures got out of what the ships looked like, the mood of the public turned notably more positive. Talk filled the airwaves and the net. The media pundits continued their analysis, such as it was.
“Finally, and notably, there are no visible objects on the surfaces of these ships that our experts think might resemble a weapon,” said one of Karden’s least favorite, a pompous old anchorman named Rorder.
“Surely,” the anchorman continued, “such beautiful ships couldn’t house the slavering monsters or cruel invaders of popular imagination! Here I think we see diplomats and teachers from the stars, artistic beings that have advanced beyond our petty greed and ruthless warmongering. The only enemy we will see upon their arrival is us, or rather, our own fear.”
Karden peered around the pile of books to talk to Snel.
“The sailing ships of any number of conquering empires were themselves beautiful things.”
She gazed nervously through her ponderous glasses. “What do you mean?”
“I can call to mind more than a few encounters between overawed natives, and more advanced and powerful visitors, visitors who came by ship from far away.”
“And this time,” he said, “we’re the natives. All of us.”