All Souls Lost

Glowing sun, silhouetting the ground and a lone figureThe ship was first sighted over Russia.  This, of course, set the whole world on edge.  The Americans believed it to be a new Russian weapon; the Russians imagined it to be an American spy plane; but the rest of the world saw it for what it was, something far more exciting.

In size it was at least three concords long but, at its widest, it didn’t get much fatter than a fire engine.  For the most part it was conical, its front tapering from a point as thin and sharp as a toothpick to its widest point around eight tenths of the way along its body. From there, its rear sharply curved back in, like the roof of a big-top turned upon its side, leaving a small point in the centre that appeared to be some form of exhaust or propulsion.   The outside was constructed of completely smooth silver, save for three black fins that jutted out of the cone shaped vessel.  In shape and proportion, the fins closely resembled that of a dolphin’s, which led to the ship becoming affectionately referred to as “Dolly” in the media. 

As the ship speared effortlessly through the sky, the sun would reflect and glint off its hull, causing it to sparkle and wink at the watching Earth. It truly was a thing of beauty.  The whole world felt how the ornithologist must feel when they have just caught sight of one of the rarest birds.  We delighted in every swoop; we gasped in awe at every sound cracking thunderclap; and we shivered with tingles of insignificance every time it glided out of sight. 

For three days the ship tore up the skies, not responding to any attempt of communication from either the governments of the world or the more cavalier media empires.   The political situation amongst nations, while tense, was surprisingly patient and non-reactive.  After a few hours it had become obvious, even to the more paranoid of cold war veterans, that the ship was far beyond anything that any country on Earth could produce.  This, surprisingly, relaxed the politicians, who, after being so used to playing tug of war with each other, seemed happy to have their attention distracted by things that either could not be blamed on them or they could not blame on anyone else.

Finally on the 27th of June 2026, the ship landed.  Its chosen spot was Mumbai’s International Airport and it landed in much the same way as the giant airbuses do, crunching down onto the landing strip on three small wheels that had protruded from its belly.  However, as the wheels touched the tarmac, instead of a roar of engines and squeal of breaks, the ship silently decelerated and came to a full stop in a matter of meters. 

The Mumbai police were quick to cordon off the whole airport as hordes of excited locals stampeded towards the extraterrestrial visitor, and within hours Mumbai’s harbour was a parking lot of masts and motorboats.  People were desperate to welcome this interstellar visitor to our humble planet.  The ship itself seemed in no hurry and it just sat there, shinning.

World leaders flew into nearby airports and then were transported by a fleet of helicopters to Mumbai and, by evening, every country in the world was represented.  They all sat in a domestic departure lounge, whose big glass windows offered a view of the motionless alien aircraft.    No one wanted to speak.  No one could bring themselves to argue.  This was a momentous occasion for the whole globe, and not one of them wanted to detract from it by bringing up old grievances.

It was from this vantage point where the first Earthling eyes saw a traveller from beyond the stars.  A hatch popped out from the fuselage of Dolly, near her middle, and slid effortlessly to one side.  A disappointing lack of smoke accompanied a small set of stairs that unfolded down to the tarmac and the hatch, for some strange reason, seemed not be illuminated in a heavenly glow.  In fact, the whole mechanics of Dolly opening was, almost dramatically, unimpressive.  Despite this being the first ever alien aircraft to land on the planet, it felt disconcertingly common place.

All the world leaders stood silently, staring out through the large panes of glass as a pair of feet appeared, and then two legs. These were followed by a torso, two arms and a head.  A few people murmured in the room.  Had this been a giant hoax? Could this have been a hoax?  There was no denying it, the creature; the animal; the person; that stood before them was remarkably Human in appearance.

He had dark African toned skin and thick black hair, cut short.  He wore clothes that, while differing in many minor stylistic points, looked pretty similar to a red jumpsuit. As the alien stepped down onto the tarmac he turned, and with a big beaming smile, he waved an arm to the silent crowds that were trying to peer into the airport from behind the perimeter fence.  Still no one wanted to make a sound.

The figure turned back towards the departure lounge and slowly, with a normal bipedal stride, started the short walk into the large building.  The alien was muscular, there was no doubt about that, but he had a slightly triangular body shape, like an Olympic swimmer, with broad shoulders but far more slender hips.  In fact, even though his gate seemed perfectly normal, on close scrutiny you would probably conclude that the man was finding walking fairly challenging.  He strained and tensed as if he were having to drag his whole body with each step.

Not a word was spoken in the ten minutes it took the traveller to arrive in the departure lounge, directed by dumbstruck army officials.  He stood there, before the most powerful men on the planet, and made them look like a rabble of school children respectfully gathering around their sporting hero.

Now they could see him more closely, there were some obvious signs that he was not of this world.  His forehead was larger and slightly more protruding than the average Humans, this made his eyes seem slightly more sunken in his head and emphasised the bushiness of his dark eyebrows.  His lips were thick and red, pushing out a little, like an orang-utan sucking on a cough sweet, and his chin was almost indistinguishable from the rest of his face.   He was clean shaven, but dark shading around his chin and cheeks suggested that, if he were to let it grow, he probably could have an impressive beard.  He smiled and nodded at all those present and then, in a loud but slightly hesitant voice, the first words of an alien to a Human were spoken

“You’ve not done to badly for yourselves, have you?”  The gaggle of interpreter’s quivered with excitement as they rattled off the first words in a hundred different languages, but it was the American president who managed to get the first reply in.

“We of Earth and the United State of America, welcome you to our planet.”  The traveller looked at him for a puzzled moment and then, for what seemed like the first time, he looked around himself with the true curiosity of a historian, rather than the bemused enjoyment of a tourist.  The Chairman of China, feeling that he could not let the American’s do all the talking barked out a few words that his interpreter translated in softer tones.

“How is it that you come to speak English? China wishes to honour your arrival by declaring the next week a people’s festival.  Would you grant us the honour of your attendance?”  The alien again, looked puzzled but then responded in a slow voice.

“We decided upon English, as the most commonly used language between your factions, to be the best one to use.  We had anticipated that you would have forgotten your mother tongue and also that you may well have developed into… culturally different groups, but we had no idea that you would have flourished so well.  We must commend you and we apologise for the delay in…”

“What mother tongue?” interrupted the American President and then, once his ears had caught up, he added “delay? Delay in what?”

“In your rescue.”

“Rescue?” interrupted the Indian Premier.  The alien suddenly looked very concerned and glanced around at the group once more in astonishment.

“Did your ancestors not tell you?  We know it has been a long time but we had anticipated knowledge would last from ten to fifteen generations.”

“Knowledge of what?” asked a number of world leaders together; puzzled expressions now breeding like wild fire.  The traveller sighed and held up his hands to silence them, he looked nervous and uncomfortable.  He thought for a few moments but then, finally, he replied.

“Many generations ago, my culture was setting out to explore Space.  We had already colonised a couple of the planets in our system, but we wanted to travel further, to explore more of the universe and to search for life like ourselves.  Our ships were not fast enough, however, to travel the enormous distance between Stars in a conventional manner, so our foremost scientists drew up plans for a new type of ship.  A ship that could distort light and space around it and jump from one part of the universe to another.  The machinery was so complex that it had to be housed in a giant space ship and needed a crew of several thousand to run it, but such was our drive to explore the universe that we had no choice but to build it. 

We had selected a near by star system, this star system, to which to make the jump.  We were fairly confident that there was a planet here, this planet, which could support life.  However,” The traveller paused and then swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down like a yoyo.  “We made a slight error in our design.  The ship made the jump as planned, but on re-entry something went horribly wrong and the machine exploded.  We, of course, were not aware of this.  As soon as the ship had jumped we had no chance of contact with it until it returned.  The mission was planned for approximately twenty years, your years that is.  The expense of the jump meant that there seemed little point in just testing it, we had planned to analyse this planet and, if possible, either make initial contact with intelligent life or colonise it.

When the ship did not return after twenty years, we were concerned but not worried.  We assumed all was going well and maybe the crew had decided to spend a few more years before coming back.  By twenty five years we were truly worried.  Scientists went over the telescope data that had been collected during that time.  They noticed, with advanced techniques they had developed, a small spot of light nineteen years after the launch of the ship.  It only registered on the readout for a moment, and at the time it had been ignored as interference, but our head scientists became increasingly of the opinion that something had gone horribly wrong. We assumed that all the crew had been lost, it seemed farcical to imagine otherwise.

Another hundred years had passed before the man who had drawn up the initial plans realised the error.  A small component, barely the size of a finger,” the alien held up his finger to demonstrate to his captive audience how small it had been, “had caused the fault.  The ship had never had a chance.”

“Hang on,” Said the German President, “You said the designer noticed this a hundred years on? The same man?”

“Yes,” replied the Alien and was just about to continue his story when he noticed the shocked faces on the men around him. “Is that unusual? How long do you let your scientists work?”

“As long as they can,” replied the German, “but we barely live a hundred years, let alone work that long.”  It was the alien’s turn to look shocked, he glanced around at all the people present and asked each of them their ages in turn, he let out a gasp with each reply.  “How old are you?” asked the German finally.

“I,” said the Alien slowly, “am coming up to seven hundred of your years, I am considered to be in my prime, the perfect balance of physical fitness and intellectual wisdom.”  Suddenly realisation started to drip over the travellers face. “How long have your lives been curtailed like this?”

“We have always…” started one of the world leaders but then she paused and considered her answer for a moment, “For as long as our history records we have lived less than a hundred years, but we do have some stories of men reaching to about your age.  They are usually dismissed just as fantasy.”

The traveller muttered something in a language no one could understand.  The room was silent for a moment, everyone’s thoughts on what, in the grand scheme of things, this all meant.

“That explains much, but does not change anything, I shall continue with my story, for it is something you all must know. We had lost our faith in space travel for a time after we realised the accident.  The loss was unbearable to us.  While we had new, safer plans for the ship, no one thought it was worth the risk to build.  Our whole species had lost that very thing that made us us, we had lost that pioneering spirit, that curiosity and hunger for the unknown. We became inward looking, contentious and self-destructive.  We were dooming ourselves, until, until something wonderful happened.”  The man licked his engorged lips slowly and a smile started to blossom on his face. 

“We got a message from you.  Two thousand years after we had lost you and we got a message.  You now spoke a language we could not understand, but we could it see it was you and it was coming from this solar system.  Within a matter of years, work had started on the modified ship.  Our whole species was working together again, we were coming to rescue you and reunite you with your kin. 

My great granddad was on that ship.  I have cousins here.  Many of us”  the strange man waved his hands at the sky excitedly, “have cousins here.”  He feel silent for a moment and then continued in more controlled tones.

“It took us close to half a century to build the ship.  Our whole world’s resources were thrown at it and it was all any of us spoke about.  The passion for exploration was back in our hearts.   Our species soul had been reignited. However, we were still cautious and we could not risk another jump with a full crew like last time, so we tested the ship with three hundred of us, myself included, and made a jump to the edge of our star system. Then we travelled back to our outer most planet with our conventional engines.  The jump went fine this time, but the journey back took us forty years. “

“Why didn’t you jump back?” piped up one of the interpreters, unprompted by his charge.  A hundred scowls were turned upon him but the traveller answered without pausing.

“The jump engine is a delicate piece of machinery; after it has been used once it must be purged and recalibrated.  The purging alone takes close to twenty years.  Such a small amount of time though for such a grand and important goal.  Finally, we were ready and we made our jump to your star system.  We have come to take you home, we are finally reunited.”  He said this last as if he were a man accepting an award and was expecting a chorus of applause.  None was forthcoming, everyone was silent in shock.”

Two hours later, two of the interpretors were sat quietly next to each other, sipping at cups of lukewarm brown coffee.  They had sat there next to each other, two strangers brought together by a  common mood, for almost ten minutes before one of them spoke.

“This should be the most incredible day in the history of the world, why is it I feel like I’ve lost an arm?”  He sipped his coffee slowly as the girl next to him stirred and glanced towards him, a weak smile on her downcast face.

“I know, it’s weird isn’t it.  It feels like we’ve just been told our dad’s died or something.”

“I suppose,” said the first man slowly, “in a way he has.  I guess we’ve just been told that all our history, all that stuff we learnt at school, isn’t true.  Or at least isn’t as important as we once thought.  What do things like ten sixty-six mean, when you’re actually a race of super advanced space travellers just hanging around on a planet waiting for a pick up.”

“Yeah,” they, both watched the alien or what ever it was now, chatting excitedly to someone.  He must have spoken to nearly two hundred people, he kept asking for more to be allowed in so he could talk to them.  Everything was delighting him, everything was thrilling.   “What about,” continued the young woman slowly, her eyes still fixed on their rescuer, “All the stuff before we were meant to have arrived?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well he said, er, what, the original flight was around two thousand years ago?  What about all the history and stuff before then?  I mean that’s bronze age era right? What about the stone age? Neolithic man? What about all that stuff?”

“I don’t know, didn’t really pay much attention in history class” the man murmured into his coffee cup.” The strange traveller was now enthusing to another man, the words ‘yes, I think it was around two hundred and thirty BC in your time line’ drifted over to them.  The woman nodded.

“That was the first recorded sighting on Halley’s Comet, I believe. Two thirty BC.”  Her voice was sullen as if she were reading the words from a dull book.

“Was it” mumbled her companion disconsolately.    “It was probably our ship exploding.”  He let out a dry laugh.  The girl stared at him, and then swivelled her eyes towards the alien.  He looked similar to them, sure, but there were a lot of differences and you couldn’t argue with fossil records could you? And stone built unnatural structures?   The woman’s eyes lit up, like the mother who has just discovered her long lost daughter, and she pulled herself to her feet.

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