Hubris Humbled

They’d come in the middle of the night.

Hands in the darkness, they’d forced their way into his home, dragged him from his bed, bundled him into a black, nondescript sedan, and politely asked him to buckle his seatbelt.

Two exceedingly dull hours later and he’d found himself standing in a bland, featureless room, the only furnishings roughly two dozen foldable chairs laid out in haphazard rows and a cheap plastic table offering equally tasteless coffee and a minor selection of pastries. One of the first to arrive, over the next hour or so he’d had little else to do but take a seat, snack, and watch as the room slowly filled with further bleary eyed and cranky people. 

A middle-aged man wearing a light jacket and a pair of chinos sat down beside him. “Nice pyjamas."

“Thanks,” he replied, glancing involuntarily down at his flannel night attire. “Jerks bust into my house at 2am, yelled a codeword at me and threw me into a car. Insisted I didn’t have time to shower or change, but now seem quite happy to have me wait in this delightful venue for who knows how long.”

The man shrugged. “That’s the government for you; it’s what you signed up for.”

“Yeah, yeah. Me, you, and all these other saps, lured in by the sense of adventure and serving our country.”

“Damn right,” the man chuckled, extending a hand. “Brad Donoghue, Marine Biology.”

“John Tibbult, Linguistics,” Professor Tibbult replied, warmly returning the handshake. “How come you weren’t caught out in your unmentionables?”

“Luck of the draw, I guess. I was nursing a sick sturgeon in my lab, hadn’t knocked off work yet.”

“You were nursing a sick fish at 2am?”

“What can I say? It’s a really sick sturgeon and I’m rather attached to it.”

The professor grinned and shook his head. “To each their own,” he offered and turned to gaze toward the front of the room. “They tell you anything? Beyond the codeword? Couldn’t get a whisper out of my guys; felt like the longest car ride of my life.”

The biologist waved a hand noncommittally. “Not exactly. Beyond the codeword, not a peep. Outside of that I managed to get one of them to tell me which basketball team he rooted for. Not verbally of course, but about forty minutes into the drive as I listed off every team I could think of I could tell that his eyes twitched behind his stony façade when I got the right one. That made the miles just fly by.”

Tibbult allowed himself a smirk. “I’m sure your guys loved you.”

Donoghue clicked his tongue playfully. “Hey, if you’re gonna abduct people in the middle of the night you should allow them some sass, right? It’s just common courtesy.”

The professor was about to reply when a sudden, unnatural hush fell over the room. Up front, a woman in crisp military uniform took her place at a centre podium.

“Thank you for joining us,” she announced clinically, her eyes surveying the thirty or so people assembled before her, her hands clasped behind her back. “You’ll find a data pack distributed to you shortly; please review and familiarise yourselves with your pack at the earliest opportunity. In the meantime, allow me to confirm for you that this is not a drill. As of 0137 this morning an unidentified object was detected penetrating Earth’s upper atmosphere. The object’s flight path was determined as unnatural, its flight characteristics not synonymous with any known Earth design. First contact was made as of 0229 when we received a broadcast in English which, through apparent perusal of the internet, our visitors have identified as the lingua franca and learned accordingly.”

Tibbult stared at the woman with disbelief, feeling as though the floor had just dropped out from under him. When he’d first been approached by the government, recruited for his expertise in his field of study and briefed on the potential task that lay ahead, he’d assumed it would never actually come to pass. It had seemed like something harmless, an entertaining diversion that he could look back on in his old age, a mere bauble of memory that he could reminisce over; how he’d been signed up for a government ‘black op’, for a mission conceived to come about under extraordinary circumstances. He’d honestly never believed it would actually manifest!

Judging from the gaping, dumbstruck expressions surrounding him, he guessed a great many of his colleagues had felt the same…

“We subsequently received coordinates in GPS standard, which would seem to indicate our guests have helpfully assimilated knowledge of our navigational methodology,” the woman continued, her tone and choice of words leading Tibbult to conclude she held some very particular views regarding the visitor’s uninvited acquisition of man’s knowledge, traditions, and practices. “They made landing at 0312 and are now contained within a secure facility.”

“You captured them and locked them up?” someone near the front yelled incredulously.

“No,” the woman replied with an icy gaze. “We simply built a facility around them so as to ward off the public eye. The visitors actually requested it so that they could begin their negotiations in peace. Said negotiations began at 0319 as near as we can tell.”

There was an awkward pause, before Tibbult raised his hand. “‘As near as you can tell’?” he asked. “What does that mean? How can you not know when the negotiations started? Who’s speaking on our behalf?”

The woman looked as though she’d swallowed something unpleasant. “Our guests informed us that they were coordinating with us as a mere courtesy. They’re only here to speak with the planet’s dominant species, a determination they’ve made based on population, intelligence, nature, productivity, and worth,” she said, the words looking as though they were choking her.

“They’re negotiating with the ants.”

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