It should have happened to someone else. As St. Germain said, everyone had already been through the wringer. A parade of people, the who’s who of SETI, scientists, politicians, ordinary people, wackos, and children. Yes, children.
“So, you’re right where you belong,” St. Germain quipped. “Children being SETI’s last try.”
He looked me over like he was meeting me for the first time, even though he was supposedly the boss of Regional Health.
“It's down to the local authorities,” he continued. “Health Services, Port Hansen, as you know.”
What was going on? I wondered. St. Germain asking for me? I had heard a shakeup was looming in the health department, but this fallout was not what I imagined.
“But I work out of Hazelton. Couldn’t you have gotten someone closer to…”
“It is what it is.” He got up to go. “Any questions?”
It was such a lovely day. I had vacation time lined up. A weekend trip to an amusement park for the wife and kids, so much more to look forward to than this. I paused, one chance, and there it would be, right on my lap.
“Any reason why the children didn’t work out?”
“They were bored. They missed their video games.” He turned to go, thrumming his fingers on my desk as he left.
Once St. Germain left the building, Emma sneaked upstairs, skirting the potted dwarf trees and avoiding the main corridor, to get to my office.
“What’s got him snooping around?” she whispered as she entered my office.
I shut the door after checking that the receptionist for our floor was on a coffee break.
“I haven’t a clue.” I sighed. “I hardly ever see the man. He’s been to the pavilion already. Why does he need me to go?”
Emma laughed as she sat across from me at my desk, a bunch of papers in her hand. “Misery loves company?” she suggested.
When I didn’t answer, she stared at me with this look I was seeing more of lately.
“I got this from your mailbox,” she said, brandishing a sheaf of papers and shaking them. “This is your bogus new assignment! Wooh oo! Ghosts and Goblins are welcome, don’t you know! Wouldn’t want them to have a health scare!”
I smiled. “I could have gotten it myself.”
“Yes, but then you wouldn’t have me to hand it to you,” Emma cooed as she gave me the papers. Then she winked and swaggered away, with an exaggerated peek to see if the receptionist was back as she scooted downstairs to her ready room.
Ghosts, Goblins and aliens were old news. Climate change was causing severe declines in living standards worldwide. Mother nature's onslaught caused insurance rates to skyrocket. When people could no longer pay for or even get insurance, unrecoverable losses put more people than ever out on the street. Societal breakdown soon followed, along with worsening social services and job losses. Inflation made for a crisis that governments everywhere seemed incapable of handling. The doomsayers were saying that Western Civilization was in terminal decline. But there were bright spots of hope here and there. Canada’s prime minister, Mohammed Al Ahmad, had been caught up in a vast corruption scandal, but he admitted everything he had done wrong and resigned. His replacement was working hard to restore confidence in the federal government. President Andrews of the United States resigned around the same time. Vice President Garcia took his place and introduced a whole series of reforms that Congress passed without much dissent.
As for the aliens, after six years, many people, government leaders and officials had already been through “the pavilion.” Even though there was nothing to see, it was a tourist attraction—a tiny rectangular box having suddenly appeared in the middle of Port Hansen’s Lockview Park near the canal. It wasn't long before people wanted to normalize it. “No big deal!” the locals would say as they walked their dogs and answered questions from excited tourists.
Now, I would have to go into that box, be bored out of my mind and then file a report. It was getting late—only about an hour before quitting time. Emma was on the phone with me. Her cell to mine, of course.
“I’ll go with you,” she said.
“No need,” I answered.
“No need?” she echoed.
We had already been for a friendly drink, which was supposed to be with everyone at the office but ended up being just me and her, everyone bugging off for one reason or another. That was an indiscretion I was inclined to repeat.
We decided to take my car. I wanted this over with as soon as possible; there was no point delaying it, wondering about what might happen. I knew what would happen. Emma and I were going to get to the bottom of something and see where that went.
“Did you hear what went on at Building Services and Inspections?” I asked, sliding the car into gear.
“What?” Emma answered.
“Oh, I don’t get how they thought this through, but they went to the pavilion first before our department.”
“So, they rank ahead of us? Yeah, right.” Emma sneered. “What other departments went before us?"
“Regional police, fire department, the school board, I could name more.”
“Don’t!” said Emma. “It ruins the mood.”
That stare again. I had to bring something up that would ruin things for sure.
“St. Germain might be wondering about those restaurant inspection reports you handled. The ones for the people who helped you get your job.”
“I submitted them to you, remember?” she replied, hardly fazed.
Touché, I thought. We were both in it, for sure.
We arrived at the pavilion. School was back in session, with no kids around and not many tourists either. Clouds were shaping up for a storm at Port Hansen. Supposedly, you could see ships on the canal, but there were none. There used to be police and security about the place. A rusty fence and a guard shack, washroom facilities and litter were all there was to see now.
Despite its small size and unremarkable construction, there were several things about the pavilion that people paid attention to. For one thing, only certain people could enter it. It had been documented a hundred thousand times or more. Authorized people only; everyone else had to stand back, or the door wouldn’t open. Also, the door was a door. Nothing special. Handle, no window, white like everything else that was there.
Even more strange was that the pavilion had already been broken into many times. There was no science fiction force field or protection of any kind. Unless the door was fixed and everything was returned to what it was, it just stopped working. Things like graffiti had to be removed, too, or the same thing would happen. It got so that the authorities took very detailed pictures of everything so that if the pavilion was completely destroyed, they could reconstruct it exactly as it was.
“You know what I don’t get?” I said as we exited the car in the parking lot in front of the pavilion. “Durden over at building inspections is on a tear. Moving people around, insisting that building inspection reports be reviewed. I even heard he’s forcing people to retire, threatening to air all the dirty laundry.”
“I never heard that,” replied Emma, sighing. “What else is going on?”
“Keep this under your hat.” I lowered my voice. “I know a few dirty cops. They’re afraid they might lose their jobs.”
“Oh, spill everything, why don’t you?" she jeered. "What about the fire department or the school board?”
“I didn’t hear anything about them. But it's like a bomb has hit the whole region. St. Germain is back with his wife if you could believe that!”
Emma laughed. “Who planted a bomb under him? Speaking of which, didn’t someone plant a bomb at the pavilion last year?”
“Tried to plant a nonfunctional bomb,” I answered as I got everything I needed from the trunk of my car.
“That’s not what I heard,” she continued. “The bomb squad detonated it later away from the pavilion.”
“Oh, they planned to drop an Atom bomb on it too. Only the plane wouldn’t take off!” I joked as I approached the door. “You’ll need to stand back.”
A crowd of tourists was beginning to make a lot of noise as they gathered around. They wanted to see the door open. Emma backed away more than needed and persuaded some tourists to join her. She had this look on her face like she was concerned. Maybe this was a big deal after all.
I hesitated when the door clicked open, and then I turned and waved at everyone as they cheered and clapped. It was just a simple step up and in, but I immediately noticed the lack of proper wheelchair access as I entered—something else to add to my boring, stupid report.
I shouldn’t have been afraid. Funny thing that. We think with our heads, and then our hearts do their own thing. Control your thoughts, and that can work, but your feelings, forget about it. What is it about us? Why would I imagine entering the pavilion would be any different for me than for the hundred or so thousand who came before me? I’m so unique; I’m the one and only! A middle administration staffer at a local health agency in a remote corner of the world solves the most incredible riddle of all human history! How dumb is that? I could see the headlines swirling in my brain, an endless stupefaction.
It was my own pounding heart and labored breathing that brought me back to reality. There were chairs. Chairs made of cheap blue plastic, like ones you could pick up at a garage sale. These aliens have no taste, I thought, chuckling and gaining more composure. Why would we want to meet them anyway? To exchange décor ideas for Salvation Army soup kitchens?
I finally calmed down. The ten-by-twenty room I was in was starting to look and feel like an elementary school time-out, with all those soothing feelings you get from not having to deal with an angry teacher. I glanced at the boilerplate speech I had in my hands. It was the standard spiel, delivered to me in its eleventh incarnation, the version number on the bottom. I felt like starting my address with “Greetings, fellow aliens!” but the instructions said to say only what was on the page, nothing more:
As previously stated in our many visits, we need to know why you are here. We began with the people most qualified to understand you and with whom you could most easily communicate. Then, influential people came to visit, leaders from all over the world who could facilitate and help with anything you need to accomplish your mission. Following that, many scientists, medical doctors, and highly educated people from all fields of human inquiry have visited and explained what help they might give. You have chosen to locate in a small community in a country of little importance. In our sixth year of attempting to communicate, matters have been turned over to the local authorities.
We cannot imagine you would undertake this mission only to fail to communicate with us. You have been warned repeatedly that failing to communicate with those best able to help would result in what is now taking place. The people least able to help are currently the only ones at your disposal. Please give us a sign and communicate. We will make our most qualified people available again.
As Chief Health Inspector for Hazelton, I, (say your name), would like to inform you…
I had to stop and laugh. What a goof! Instead of saying my name, I said, “Say your name.” I tried again.
As Chief Health Inspector for Hazelton, I, Thomas Richardson, would like to inform you that you have violated regional health codes by running an uninspected facility for an unknown purpose in a public park. Please communicate with our public health team to ensure that regulations are followed, or we will be forced to flag your facility as an unsafe public venue.
Whew! Done. I was sweating it way too much. The empty white room I was in was still the same as it was, devoid of life. I had this gizmo that tracked radiation, GPS, and many other things that no one explained to me. It was beat-up looking. I had to sign it out. I was curious to know if it worked, but it was silent. It looked so shabby I wondered if someone would blame me for misusing it!
It took a while, but even the gizmo started boring me. I didn’t know how long I was supposed to wait, which was weird. You’d think they would tell you that. I sighed—that report. How long would it take to write it? I felt a little weird as I got up to leave, but it was probably from skipping lunch and just general before-supper hunger pangs.
The thing that most people didn’t talk about was that the door would open after you were done, automagically, I suppose. Maybe people were happy to leave and didn’t notice. But I felt things were clearer once I stepped into the parking lot. A lot more clear. My visit to the pavilion no longer mattered. Emma was waiting for me in the car.
“Did they abduct you?” she joked as I entered my vehicle.
"Abduct me? As in, take me somewhere? Absurd."
Emma was at a loss for words. She looked around. The tourists were gone. It was getting dark, and the slight pitter-pat of rain was beginning on the car hood.
"Are you alright, Tom?" she asked.
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. I was thinking of my replacement and the plans that were unfolding, too many to talk about, like high-speed scrolling web pages that flashed by and were gone before they could be read. My cell was ringing. It was St. Germain.
“Hello, sir,” I said.
“How did it go?”
“Fine, sir. No problems.”
“I want to meet with you tomorrow morning in my office. Be prepared to justify all the health inspection reports filed by Emma Fulham. After that little detail we have a lot to discuss."
I started the car. Emma was sitting on the edge of her bucket seat, looking at me intently.
“What did he want?”
“I have a meeting with St. Germain tomorrow.”
“I know that! What’s it about?” she demanded.
“It’s about our dirty dealings with restaurant inspections.”
Emma looked surprised, but she recovered quickly enough. “So, you’ll stick up for me, right?” she said, convinced all would be well.
I stared at her. “I’m going to tell the truth.”
It had started to rain heavily. I started the windshield wipers and adjusted the speed to high. As long as we were parked in front of the pavilion, I wanted to see it.
“Tom, we’ll both lose our jobs!” she suddenly yelled, her tears starting.
She tried to put her arm around me, hold on, and maybe even knock some sense into me, her hands finally balling into little fists. I started the car.
“What’s your hurry?” she screeched as I threw the car into reverse, backed up and skidded onto Lockview Drive.
“I need to get home.”
We were picking up speed, heading for the highway back to the office. The flashing lights of a neighborhood bar careened into view out of the night as I turned a corner at full speed.
“Wait!” she gasped, holding onto the car seat. “Let's go for a drink to talk this over!”
It was a good thing there was no one tailgating us because, in that instant, I stopped the car so suddenly that we would have been rear-ended. After the vehicle came to a complete stop and rolled back on its suspension, her head was bloody from hitting the dashboard. She moaned and hung onto her seatbelt, looking so small and crumpled. Then she mumbled something to me, and I wanted to reach out to her, but it was too much. Something crumpled inside me, too.
“It’s all over, Emma!” I yelled finally, my last mournful cry, louder than her sobs, louder than any sound I had ever made in my life.