Smack! (The sound echoes across the small mostly deserted memorial park)
She had slapped the boy before she knew she was going to do it. And of course the tears started welling up in his eyes.
She felt terrible immediately and tried to comfort him. Her daughter-in-law came running.
"All I said was that the man on the statue is ugly."
Lauren caught a hint of movement out of the corner of her eye and realized her mother in law had just barely stopped herself from striking her son again.
She glanced over at her, saw that she was biting her tongue hard, and knew she had to be careful how she worded everything she was about to say to her son or she could become a target.
"William. The man on that statue saved the world. I don't know when we stopped teaching it, but I bet if you told Grandma you are sorr"
"SHE HIT ME!" through clenched teeth
Sharper this time.
Lauren glanced up and back down quickly and noticed her mother in law's approving expression but she didn't need that.
This was a big deal. You don't dimish the survival of the human race. Not for some shitty kid. Not even if it's your own kid.
"THAT MAN" she felt the anger rise in her voice and was surprised at herself.
"THAT MAN gave up EVERYTHING in front of the entire world for us."
Tears happened. She wasn't expecting them. They made her angrier.
"I don't care how ugly he is. You will RESPECT HIM. he was The Greatest."
Lauren had been raised right.
It was a rare cold day in Florida when The Greatest was born. An accident between two very mobile older Florida residents. The baby wasn't born strong. The baby didn't grow into a strong boy. The boy wasn't handsome or gifted in any obvious way. But he was kind and patient. And even though he wasn't very smart, he was curious and motivated. And he did just barely get raised to adulthood by two very loving parents before they both died.
"We'll name him John after you" offered Mildred.
"Oh, don't do that to him. His name will become Junior. Use my middle name."
"Henry". She smiled. He smiled. And the baby was Henry.
Henry did as best as he could in school. He did not get great grades, but he understood some math. He found his love in shop class. He loved working with wood and metal and leather. And he loved the teachers. Because they were never mean like his classmates. He did well enough to go to his hometown college, and earn a business degree.
And unsurprisingly Henry found love. And for a handful of years things went very well. He got married, and through hard work, earned the money to put a down payment on a storefront. His own hardware store. With a little tinker shop in the back so he could make things at night. It even had an apartment overtop.
But life isn't always fair. Businesses fail. Marriages fail. Henry always wanted his own son. It was like a knife to his heart finding out he was sterile. Everything fell apart quickly. By his mid 30's he was lonely, broke, and needed a job.
Henry found teaching shop at a high school. It was a great decision. It took him 8 credit hours to be eligible for certification. And at the age of 50, after teaching children woodworking, soldering, leatherworking, and even auto shop, The Greatest had a content life. He had his routine. He got up every day, made breakfast, and drove his ancient AMC Hornet the quarter mile to the school shop parking lot. Had his own private parking space in back. He taught his curriculum the way he wanted, and the school loved him for it. And everything could have just been like that forever. And that would have been perfectly acceptable to Henry.
The ships in the sky were so sudden. Historians compared the effect they had to turning around in the shower and realizing somebody has been standing there looking at you. And that's exactly what they were doing. At some point people on planet Earth looked up and noticed that the entire planet was surrounded by a ring of what looked like enormous eyes. The global panic was immediate. It was made worse by the fact that none of our sensors could tell if they were really there. They could be seen, but not detected by any other means.
The view aboard the International Space Station wasn't much better than ours. At about 250 miles up, they had much the same view as everyone else. The "eyes" appeared to be roughly 5000 miles away. The view from the EPIC Camera 1 million miles from Earth showed a perfect ring of orbs. It also showed the other pieces showing up and connecting themselves quite clearly when it started happening. Like sections of a train showing up late, they appeared in unison in groups and attached themselves to the ends of the orbs. Each arriving group identical, but each group different. The objects gained the appearence of 50 steampunk totem poles towering over Earth.
Things on Earth were frantic at this point. Nobody was thinking "friendly!". This feeling punctuated by the beams that started rushing the surface. Massive shafts of crimson light 25 miles wide started leeching iron directly from the Earth's surface. There didn't appear to be any malice to where they struck. There was an observable pattern to it before EPIC's ground station was destroyed. In an outwardly growing fractal pattern from roughly the Equator, the beams leached all iron directly out of the Earth in whatever form it found at roughly 10,000 degrees. It penetrated the ground deeply, several thousand feet.
The death toll reached half a billion before everyone could get out of the path of destruction. Global communications were in ruins. Weather patterns completely destroyed. The temperature of the Earth now 10 degrees higher than before. And as suddenly as it started, it stopped. It took 18 hours. The defenses of the entire planet rendered useless in 18 hours by an automated process. We didn't even have anybody to surrender to.
Overhead the factory towers were hard at work turning their iron into massive metal protrusions. All the towers had started extending a metal section to the next tower over. From the ground it looked like they were all growing cartoonishly huge right arms. 20 hours later everyone could see the ring as the gaps between the towers closed and they were all connected. And 3 hours later is when the entire Earth began to hum.
And things just kinda, stayed like that. For months. Earth took advantage of the time to restore some communications. Militaries organized. World leaders talked. The brightest folks we could find were gathered. Data shared. It was determined the Earth had just been turned into some sort of massive generator. The theory being that the towers in the sky were entirely automated, and for this purpose. The theory that the energy was being beamed back somewhere. That maybe we were fine now and we could co-exist with this megastructure. Heck, maybe we could learn how to tap into it. If only. it took them a little longer to realize that the Earth was slowing down.
Things on the ground had been, well...
How do you cope with entire sections of history simply erased? That alone was hell.
Equador. Ninety percent of Brazil. Kenya, Somalia, the Sudan, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Indonesia and half of Australia were just... erased. What the scientists though of as the "final pass" was a wild arc on the fractal pattern they eventually identified. Those final arcs of destruction that appeared to deviate from the original tight pattern (but did not) reached up to Nova Scotia. They destroyed France, Spain, Kazhakistan, Chili, Mongolia, and removed most of Oregon and Montana. Like the eraserhead of God.
History and people just.. gone. No backups. Gone. Forever. South Africa was spared for a moment. They considered themselves lucky. Dancing in the streets. Then they got hit by the wall of steam from the ocean nearby being obliterated and were boiled alive. The bodies of their people landing in Madagascar fully cooked in defiance of the rotation of the Earth.
Henry didn't mind the break from routine, but of course he was just as horrified as everyone else. He has his 22 inch frame telescope trained at everything. A Dobsonian he built on his own from plans on USENET ages ago, saving himself tens of thousands of dollars. Henry was not a wealthy man. Henry is who figured out the spinning green metal above Earth was part of a generator, and shared that information over Shortwave Radio. He had built one of those also. And he knew that's where the scientists would be in a communication blackout. He may have been a simple high school teacher, but he saw things through patient eyes. When smarter folks were reeling, he kept calmly looking up.
Planet X. Something we hadn't even found yet. A "Super Earth" that contained the last remnants of the first intelligent beings in our solar system... crumbled under the stress of the gravity of the Locator Beacon entering our tiny solar system. Their reclaimer towers had detected possible intelligent life so they notified the home cell 6 light years away, parked next to Barnard's Star.
Intelligent life could be more valuable than a planetary core. And it always signalled a stop. It was always worth checking. The last time life was found, a new way to make oxygen from anti-matter was discovered. And 32shuck (closest translation to English) wasted no time rapidly gathering as much data as possible. It was being very careful now because it had missed the signs of technology on the massive rocky planet. It wasn't a total loss. Massive stockpiles of heavy metals were discovered, as if placed there for some up and coming species. A museum of sorts containing hundreds of thousands of generations of machinery for various space-faring tasks was processed. Data storage units with eons of history. 32shuck discovered they had left for another nearby system, and marked it on its map.
While processing the massive planet, 32shuck was intercepting all transmissions it could, learning about the internal target currently on pause with reclaimers. The reclaimers had already built the ribbon, and the ribbon was still slowing the rotation of the core for eventual retrieval. It all worked quite simple really. The ribbon would first slow the core and planet to a dead stop, then become a massive gravity pump that would expel the planetary layers away from the core, exposing it for easy retrieval. In a pinch, the reclaimers could drag it back to you. But all that changes when you find technology bearing life. Even the most primitive race might have discovered something you missed. There were already very promising signs. You could also see what they didn't have. No easy natural source of anti-matter to work with. This had seriously slowed their development. Regardless, their languages were simple. Their mathematics, crude but surprisingly complete. They had made an effort to investigate their surroundings. 32shuck greedily scooped up our landers and probes as it found them with its drones.
"I don't think it's beaming energy. I think it's beaming data."
said Henry into the microphone. And many hours later 32shuck heard him say it also, because Henry was right. That's when Henry got flagged by the system. 32shuck had been late setting up a non-gravitational field, so was dragging a massive cloud of debris as it made its way carefully towards Earth at half-light speed. Still undetected. But thanks to Henry, it didn't stay hidden much longer. Henry got flagged by 32shuck five more times before reaching Earth.
"Has anybody checked if it's having an effect on the rotation of the Earth?"
"What if it's listening to us? Should we, or could we even do anything about it?"
"Has anybody checked if we can still talk to the Mars rovers?"
"Oh my God, they are probably after the planet's core."
"We should be scanning the skies now. In case this thing has a boss or operator some distance off."
The last flag almost prompted 32shuck to send a drone to retrieve Henry for study. Henry was definitely going to be studied more closely.
The terror caused by 32shuck showing up just past the orbit of Jupiter made the arrival of the eyes seem small in comparison. Consensus was it was the end of the world. When 32shuck decided it had enough of the communication, and saturated all communication channels, the terror doubled as the Earth fell silent. When the massive egg shaped ship surrounded by debris was close enough that the debris cloud was almost on us, Henry was sure it was the end. The debris would do all the work. We'd be gone in a day. When the powerful beams from 32shuck started destroying the rocks entering our atmosphere, there was no joy. There was no hope that it was doing it for us. And when 32shuck processed all that debris, then our moon, there was no hope. None. Many committed suicide. That is what prompted 32shuck to finally communicate.
What sounded like a bizarre cocktail party played over the shortwave channels as they sprung back to life for the first time in weeks. And again, it was Henry that figured out it was eight or nine languages at once saying some form of "stop killing yourselves. wait patiently."
Then nothing for days. The ship appeared to change shape to become one with the massive factory towers, one side opening up completely. It attached itself to the side of five of the towers, and appeared to open up a bay. Henry could see the constant stream of drones coming and going. Then suddenly, it spoke.
"I will speak to Henry. I pick Henry." Came out of Henry's radio set.
"I will get you now." followed. Henry remembered thinking that he really couldn't accurately judge the size of the drones coming and going from 32shuck's bay. He wasn't having any problems judging them now. The roof of his house quietly yet rapidly rose 500 feet. He realized that it had somehow been cut clean through. No debris fell. To his left what had been a second story bedroom wall was now a 3 foot high wall on his new furnished rooftop. A poster held up with bluetack cut in half, silently fell to the floor. The drone was easily half the sky. Henry estimated it at 50 miles square. And it was getting closer. Because now Henry was rapidly rising.
32shuck had done direct contact before, but these creatures were unlike any it had ever encountered. They were an exercise in contradiction. They communicated slowly using a very small spectrum, and despite not sharing minds, did most things as groups. The social order was completely baffling. The focus on their reproductive process meaningless. The waste tremendous. They would be nothing but an infestation, and likely would have been classified as one and ignored had 32shuck found their planet earlier. But the way these creatures used what little they had was astounding. And how rapidly they'd discover and prototype new technologies baffling. 32shuck was already running virtualizations utilizing aspects of their social structure, but none of them were yielding results anywhere close. Why couldn't its versions discover quantum mechanics? 32shuck needed a go-between. Henry had six flags.
Henry simply passed right through the floor of the drone and found himself floating over a marked gray square grid. Around him he saw other samples taken by the drone, but no other people. Cars. Entire buildings. A dolphin in a massive bubble of ocean water. A pack of cigarettes. A very angry pig, apparently in some sort of sound-proof bubble. Which was interesting. The pig was being kept quiet. Henry realized that the pig silencer must be for him. He could hear other noises. The walls of the interior of the drone were semi-transparent. He couldn't guess the material. He had a hunch it was non-magnetic, and probably had degaussing properties due to how close to the big spinning ring he assumed he'd be. If 32shuck could read minds (it could not) he'd have been amazed by Henry.
32shuck had the drone deposit Henry (and only Henry) near its main console mere feet inside the ledge of the bay. To say Henry was afraid of heights would be an understatement. So as long as he didn't look backwards, and instead focused on the structure in front of him, he was fine. He had air, and perfect gravity.
"Henry figured many things out" came from the console in a close pantomime of conversational English. It was almost humorous because it sounded like a voiceover from a sitcom.
"Do you have the concept of identity?" asked Henry.
"You would call me 32shuck in your language."
Which made perfect sense looking at the console. What looked like 32 half-revealed ears of corn stood before him. The kernel-like structures glowing and changing physical shape constantly.
"killed by corn" mused Henry and smiled.
"Correct. You will not survive. But do not consider this now because it might impede usefullness."
At least he knew now. "But we all want to survive." offered Henry. The icy-chill still lingering in his spine.
"I am already better." said 32shuck. "You should not want to survive. Your data will survive. I do not end."
"But we are self-aware. We want to survive. Can we compromise?" Asked Henry.
"That is not efficient" said 32shuck.
"Why does everything have to be efficient?" asked Henry.
32shuck paused for an easy minute. It had never considered such a thing before.
"My purpose" it finally said.
"But I have a purpose. We all have a purpose. Why does your purpose matter more?" asked Henry.
"But I am better. I am forever. Your data would be forever. You would be forever." said 32shuck.
"We would live like I am as humans? Unchanged?" asked Henry.
"No you would cease function, but your data would continue and be organized." said 32shuck.
Henry was losing. He knew it. Then he got an idea.
"You have already corrupted the data." stated Henry sternly.
"No I have not. I am perfectly capturing all data." said 32shuck.
"No, you are not. The act of observing itself has corrupted the data. This data needed to be collected passively with no interference. Now you won't learn everything." Said Henry, quietly praying to himself that he didn't go too far, and that the killer corn could not read minds.
The longest ten seconds in Henry's life passed. It felt like an eternity. Suddenly he felt more than heard a massive "BANG!" and felt something in the structure start to power down.(note: a fan of the story asked a question. "Was this bang some sort of planetary death ray or world ender powering down?". That's a brilliant question. Yes.)
"That is not acceptable. I will have all the data. You will tell me how to get all the data before you are read. Tell me now." demanded 32shuck.
"Compromise" said Henry plainly.
"Offer" said 32shuck. These beings were now completely fascinating.
Henry thought very fast.
"Humans and 32shuck together as friends." said Henry. He hoped the message made sense.
"How long would it take to get the data?" asked 32shuck. Henry noticed that the being was getting better and better with the nuances of English. He'd use that.
"Well, that depends on a lot of things. But consider how hard it is for you to speak my language? You still haven't mastered it despite being much better." said Henry. Again, hoping he did not go too far.
"The way you communicate is confusing for me. That is valuable data. I want to know the nature of your rapid technology prototyping. You do things that should not be possible very fast. It could make 32shuck much more efficient if learned and applied." said 32shuck.
Henry had something now he didn't think he'd have.
"Ah, yes. A lot of that has to do with how we process an impossible amount of variables very quickly to make judgement calls." said Henry.
"No. You process a small amount of variables slowly, but you make correct decisions. It should not be possible. I must know." demanded 32shuck.
"How?" said 32shuck. It was said pleadingly, yet mechanically. Obviously an attempt to mimmick human emotion.
"32shuck and humans together as friends. We co-exist. We get back to our lives and you observe us and learn the secret. I do not know the secret. It's a collective thing. You would have to watch us learn. All of us. 32shuck and all humans together learning." said Henry.
"How many humans would you need? How long would the learning last?" asked 32shuck. Henry did not like where this was going.
"As many as possible. As long as possible. It's a skill that keeps getting better and more refined. So as much of both as possible. Time and humans." Henry said this sternly, hoping that would help.
"You could have all the humans, but you could only have five years. That would be the maximum time to balance against future data collection losses in case it fails or does not yield optimum results." said 32shuck very sternly. And it did not sound mechanical this time. It sounded positively frightening.
"Compromise. We want to survive." pleaded Henry.
"You will not survive." 32shuck said flatly.
"We will start right now." said 32shuck.
"Whoah whoah whoah, this can't be like that. You will again hurt the data collection by interfering with it." said Henry very nervously. Five years was better than nothing, but he wasn't done yet.
"Then you will now start." said 32shuck.
"First I will need to tell the others. Can you make all the flat monitors and televisions turn on and show me to them? They will need to see audio and video." it was a longshot. It was a good longshot. Seconds later a hole opened up in the wall near 32shuck and a silver cylindrical device slid cleanly out and positioned itself in front of Henry.
"They can all see you. They can all hear you. You can also hear on your frequency. Address them Henry." said 32shuck.
It took a second for Henry to figure out what 32shuck meant by his "frequency". Suddenly the silver rod burst to life with shortwave chatter.
"Holy shit, is that Henry?" came blaring out of the object way too loud. Henry cringed.
"I can hear shortwave. Can you all see me?" asked Henry
"We can see you Henry!"
"We love you Henry!"
The voices came flooding in. Henry was so overwhelmed with emotion he just stood there for a few moments. 32shuck was paying close attention. It did not want to miss any secrets. Perhaps this saline emission was a factor.
"Let me quickly get everyone up to speed" said Henry like he had many times on the radio.
"This being is named 32shuck. It picked that name because it resembles our corn. It is a data and resource gathering being. It is very good at both things. I have a feeling it has been doing it for a very long time." said Henry.
"I have been doing it for a very long time!" said 32shuck. The mimicked enthusiasm almost perfect. "Oh, should I be talking Henry? I do not want to interfere with the learning method."
"That's fine 32shuck. 32shuck and humans together." said Henry.
"For five years." corrected 32shuck.
"Yes anyway, so it can't figure out how we learn things so fast. It's apparently not supposed to be possible. So before it um, collects us all it wants to observe us learning so it can figure out how we do that. This will last for five years. At the end of those five years we will be um, collected." Henry made a very serious face towards the silver rod. He wanted everyone to know what he meant.
"Start now." demanded 32shuck.
Henry knew he was out of time. "Ok, so fellow humans now we are going to learn and show 32shuck how we learn."
"32shuck, please start explaining the ring right below us." asked Henry.
"You could not possibly understand the full technology of the Ribbon." said 32shuck.
"So it's called a ribbon. See, we learned something. And I'm assuming it's made from the iron that was leached from the Earth by those beams?" asked Henry.
"Has the process started Henry?" asked 32shuck.
"Yes it has. This part is called familiarizing everyone with the nomenclature." said Henry.
"Not efficient. Here is data in a form adapted from your data structures." said 32shuck as a projection appeared in thin air before Henry. 32shuck had somehow managed to adapt the key scientific concepts of the Ribbon into cheap furniture building instructions. The same fonts. The same cartoonish pictograms. It could have been made by the same company that made the instructions for the computer desk he had put together months prior. This was all Henry needed.
"So, now I'm going to follow my plan." said Henry, and winked at the silver rod.
That's the picture most people have in their heads of Henry. It's how the statue in the courtyard would be some day. Henry smiling and winking became a symbol of human survival forever. A symbol of hope. Of never giving up.
Then Henry said. "I love you all. I hope this works. Be good to each other." waved, and simply stepped off the ledge.
"I'm learning a lot Henry" said 32shuck, oblivious to what was happening. 32shuck was confused when Henry's body struck the Ribbon. It had a few moments to wonder if this was deception. One of the brand new concepts learned from these creatures before it was obliterated by the broken Ribbon. The delicate gravitational balance destroyed by the ripple Henry's body created when it deformed it. It was like someone throwing a brick in a clothes dryer. The entire superstructure smashed by itself, and flung away from Earth in every direction. Henry hoped he had timed it just right. He did. Many months later the dead husk of 32shuck entered the corona of the Sun.