The package sits neatly on top of my tightly made bed. I stare at the carton container of an unassuming brown color, devoid of all inscription, for five minutes before venturing a step near it.
The fact that I hadn’t ordered anything wasn’t the strangest detail. But rather I wondered how it reached my bedroom upstairs when there hadn’t been anyone home all day. The gate and front door had remained closed, and there appeared no sign of an intruder.
But even this wasn’t the strangest thing to have happened today.
My eyes dart to the backpack resting on a chair, and I consider that my incipient insanity would be the best explanation for all recent events.
No, I mustn’t stray into that kind of thinking.
My mind wanders back to work, forgetting for an instant about the brown box half my size occupying the bed. I make to retrieve my laptop from the backpack and pore over the data some more, but then I remember about the parcel.
It’s already dark outside, and I turn on the desk lamp before picking up the cutter. I want to move the box to the floor, but it’s shockingly heavy, so I labor to open it where it sits. The cardboard is thick and shiny, the kind that won’t let my blade penetrate. I can’t spot any trace of Scotch Tape or any other binding, only hard, unyielding carton.
I struggle to rip the outer layer piece by piece. The object inside is buried under so much bubble wrap, it’s impossible to identify until completely cleared and taken out of the box. It’s so heavy I wish there was someone around to help me carry it. I rarely wish I didn’t live alone.
At first, I can’t make sense of what I’m seeing. It appears to be a tangle of different metals with a glass orb on top, but, before I can analyze further, green letters cross the orb. It’s a spheric screen.
“Unpacking sequence initiated…”
The ellipsis continues to be erased and rewritten until the screen goes blank again.
The green words remain on the screen for a moment then disappear.
The mangled bits and pieces begin to unfurl until I can finally understand what I am seeing. The orb is a head of sorts, and beneath it unpacks a near-human-sized robot. He has arms and legs and a torso, vaguely resembling a children’s book illustration.
“What the-” I begin to say, but stop to read the words now forming.
“Do not be alarmed. I am here to guide you.”
“What are you? Who sent you?” I find myself shouting at the machine on my bed.
“I am an Integrator.”
“Why are you in my house? Who sent you?”
“You know who sent me.”
This answer jolts me out of my perplex numbness. It can’t be…
He doesn’t offer more information. I stare at a point between him and the wall, wondering if today can get more bizarre.
“You said something about guidance?”
“I will guide humanity into the transition. You will be the mediator, and, in the afterworld, you will remain the human ambassador.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
After saying it aloud, I repeat the phrase to myself a couple more times. I don’t know what he means. I don’t understand what he’s saying. I glance at my backpack again.
“You are the first to decode our message, so you, Ellen, will be the mediator.”
Now I figure this must be a prank by my coworkers. But the robot looks so perfect, so advanced, I can’t believe they would spend so much just for a laugh. He’s entirely made of metal, no plastic, so well blended I can’t distinguish the joints. The casing looks like it was poured whole, but his limbs are as flexible as mine.
“Who sent you?”
The screen remains blank.
Then, a question appears.
“How much of the message did you decipher, Ellen?”
I laugh out loud.
“Shouldn’t you know the answer? Shouldn’t you be all-knowing?”
“I was sent when you deciphered the first word, I know nothing beyond that point. My network is not yet operational.”
“Tell me this. Are you a gag from the lab? I told the guys there, I know it sounds crazy and I’ve been waiting for a better interpretation of the signals we’re receiving, but they all fell short. And it’s not just me. Russia’s been reading the same, so has France and India. No interstellar source we know emits signals like that. Pulses and pauses. Like a language.”
I’m pacing circles in my bedroom now and for an instant forget I’m talking to a robot.
Green words appear again on the glass orb.
“Your algorithm is correct, if very slow. How far has it processed? Show me and I can help with the rest. The message explains everything.”
“How did you get into my house?”
The screen waits in darkness for a long time.
“How would you explain to a two-dimensional being that it was picked up and placed inside a pencil-drawn circle without ripping the circle? That you can move him in and out of the circle, the shape remaining intact?”
“It wasn’t hard, getting into your house.”
When I was young and first entered this field of research I dreamed about this moment. This would be the climax of all our struggles and searching. First contact. Sentient alien life. So why aren’t I excited? What is it I’m feeling as I’m talking to either a magnificent hoax or an alien intelligence?
“Dread.” The word imprints on my retina before disappearing.
Yes, that’s what I feel.
“Dread?” I say aloud.
“Yes, Ellen. That’s what you feel.”
Cold is rising up my legs and crawling through my fingers.
That must have been a weird coincidence.
“No, Ellen. No coincidence.”
The words dissolve in the blackness of the screen and I wait an eternity for the next message.
“I have synchronized with your brainwaves and can now interpret them directly. Speech is no longer necessary.”
Blank, black screen.
I contemplate calling someone, but whom? Police, there’s a mind reading robot in my bedroom.
“That would only serve to disqualify you from mediator position. Besides, even if you destroy me, I am only a mouthpiece. I am only here to communicate. I have no power.”
I stand frozen with phone in hand. This can’t be real.
“How much of the message did your algorithm parse?”
My mind strives to paint images over the memory of my work. I don’t want him to see, so I force myself to think of blue skies and ocean waves, my father’s towering book shelves, the smell in our home. Then there’s my laptop. It’s open on my desk and the screen shows bits and pieces that don’t fit. Patches that trail off into nonsense. Think about green forest canopy, the smell of sap.
“I’ve seen enough. You haven’t so much decoded our message as established there is a message. That puts your civilization in Category 5.”
“Your world is beautiful.”
Between beats of panic, my hand decides to dial someone from the office, whoever comes first.
There is no signal.
“I am intercepting your device’s signal. We will finish our conversation with no more delay.”
“You will receive a full electronic translation of the Introduction sent by my Creators. This is a shortened version, only addressing Category 5 citizens.”
Blank, and then a block of text.
“We have existed since the Beginning. We have watched empires rise and fall in the ebb between the Stars. We have conquered empires. In Us, you will have a place, as all Life is sacred, but Life that grows to know itself is scarce and precious.”
“Your world will be protected from outsiders as from yourselves. It shall be preserved, cherished as a Jewel of the Universe, its waters sparkling in this tame Sun for eons.”
“Humankind will continue. Some will be shipped to colonize the outerworlds, some may join naval colonies that explore the outer reaches of known Creation. Others still may enlist for service in Our court. A few may even remain on this stunning Earth.”
The screen remains black for a while.
“No Life needs be squashed, no soul extinguished, all We expect is full collaboration.”
“You will join Us and thrive.”
Sweat is running down my spine and my head is spinning. In my nose and throat, I sense a vague metallic scent, or maybe motor oil, or petrol. It’s making me nauseous and I can’t form any coherent thought.
The Integrator speaks once more.
“Ellen, look to the sky. My Creators come.”
I pull aside the thin, white curtain covering the window, only enough to peek.
“My God,” I say aloud.
The sky is awash in stars, small as pinpricks, big as coins, some fly in formation. Their light floods the Earth as bright as day, bringing the dawn of Armageddon.