Lucky it’s my stop: in the crush of people moving for the door I find I’ve no real choice but to get off. I stumble as I step down onto the platform, and clutch instinctively at the coat sleeve of a stocky man shuffling along next to me. He glares at me from under a heavy brow, and utters a profanity I pretend I don’t understand.
Having managed to right myself, I move with the crowd towards the ticket barriers, where – after the inevitable few minutes of being shoved, elbowed and barged – I manage to get scanned through, and I’m finally out into the wide, marbled entrance hall. The daylight through the long row of glass doors makes me squint, but soon enough I’m outside and into the baking afternoon sun. The street’s bustling with people: workers, mostly, like me, trying to get home before the Main Event. I weave my way through the hurrying, chattering stream and up the grassy embankment onto the park.
Through the shady patches under the trees, onto the plaza, where the usual mini-market has been set up, with equally shady vendors selling, or trying to sell, Signal Day memorabilia – as always pushing the idea that This Year Is THE Year. Everything from plaster models of Jodrell Bank to huge, fluffy greylien plushy toys – which people’re buying as though it’s a given it’s what Those Above actually look like. There’s knock-off merchandise for just about every sci-fi franchise the western world’s ever heard of, and all the garish t-shirts and hoodies with contradictory designs: “They Came In Peace,” reads one of them in colourful, sixties flower-power lettering; “All Our Bases Are Belong To Them,” the one next to it memes hysterically.
And, as usual, as I wend through the gaggles of punters, and pass through into the main square, there are the doom-sayers. Crowds of religious and pseudo-religious types loudly warn anyone who passes by of a dozen different types of apocalypse that will rain down on mankind from on high if we keep trying to talk to Those Above. As usual, they’re not making much headway: most people ignore them, some laugh at them, some call them names or make abusive gestures. But they persist, confident that every Signal Day brings us closer and closer to annihilation.
I’m into my building and starting up the stairs, as I mull over the reasoning. Those prophets of the end are constantly warning us that Those Above mean us harm; that they’re only a frayed temper away from exterminating us utterly. The world’s governments clearly don’t trust Them, although most of them – at least, the ones who have influence around here, like our own, the USA, France, Germany, Italy, Russia – all grudgingly support Signal Day. I guess they reason that contact will be the only way to make any progress, even with a power they mistrust. Some countries hold to the ‘no-contact’ line, but they don’t carry much sway in the United Nations and their protests generally go unheeded.
For myself, I’m in favour of trying for contact. And I think keeping to a regular pattern is probably a sensible way of doing it: it’s become predictable, so we’re not doing anything out of the ordinary that might alarm Those Above. Admittedly, it’s kind of optimistic: in fifteen years, since They first arrived here and forcibly pacified us, They’ve never responded to a single message. Even at the time, They never allowed us to get a glimpse of them, or hear Their voices. They made no threats, issued no ultimatums. The first we knew about it was when the jamming started: when our radio communications, all around the globe, were slowly but progressively drowned in a sea of intensifying electromagnetic white noise that, over six days, became so dense that even powerful site-to-site transmitters just couldn’t cut through it. Flights were grounded, ships were recalled to port, and – most devastating of all for the average citizen – mobile phones became useless.
And just as everyone was panicking, trying to work out how to survive without instant and constant communication, and how to find their way from A to B without GPS, the beams burned out of the skies and began the unannounced, systematic obliteration of every military asset all over the world.
It took a week. After that, the world was effectively under an enforced peace. The ‘Pax Caelorum’, it’s been called: ‘The Peace of the Heavens’. Militarily speaking, everything had stopped; had been stopped. Over the next month, the scale of the attacks, never less than surgically precise, was tightened still further, and individual weapons were removed, quite literally, from people’s hands. Civil wars, insurrections, insurgencies and even gang turf wars were halted. There was complete outrage from the governments of the world, of course. But then the public started to realise just how beautifully neatly the whole thing had been done.
I let myself into the flat, and lock the door behind me. I can still hear the rumpus down on the streets, but it’s muffled by the windows. My flat has a view of rooftops, and there are balconies and roof gardens dotted with Signal Day bunting and balloons – and several people are setting up for later this evening with telescopes. Some of them are quite powerful, for amateur stargazers: big reflectors on proper equatorial mounts; some fitted with cameras. It’s become a popular dream to be the one to get the world’s first photo of Those Above. The remnants of the military and professional astronomers alike have concluded that some sort of cloaking device is being used: if there’s anything up there, it’s not visible to any detection device we’ve come up with yet. But still they come, with their telescopes and binoculars, up onto the high places, confident that, somehow, they’ll be lucky enough to catch a glimpse.
Maybe one of them will, at that: I suppose even advanced technology must fail occasionally.
Personally, I’m not interested in chasing hopefully around the sky after something I know I can’t see. To be honest, while I’m in favour of contact attempts, the commercialised hogwash that Signal Day has become just doesn’t do anything for me. Still, I drop myself onto the sofa and jab the TV remote. Nothing happens. I realise the remote’s light emitter isn’t pointing quite precisely enough at the TV’s receiver, re-align it and try again. BBC Cable News is devoting itself fully to Signal Day, of course.
With the Signal due to be made on schedule at 17:00 hours UK time, the Beeb has a crew of journalists at the transmitting site in France, where a massive, converted long-wave transmitter is now one of only five sites in the world strong enough to cut through the jamming – and then only if the beam is sent straight upwards. This means we can still transmit in the direction of Those Above, which is helpful. And at Jodrell Bank, a modified Lovell Telescope not only listens for replies but has the sensitivity to look for glints and reflections, echoes of our own signal that might bounce off an otherwise invisible craft.
Nothing ever has yet.
I watch the reporter going through the Signal Day spiel, explaining things mostly for the sake of tradition. No doubt there are kids around the world who’re just at that age where they’re starting to understand what it’s all about, but people my age have spent fifteen years getting excited at every attempt to contact Those Above; and invariably, disappointment follows. There is silence. There’s always silence. No voices, no identification, no explanation. The EM jamming continues without interruption, and we’re left wondering whether our signal even got through at all.
People are pragmatic, generally speaking. They were angry, at first. Hundreds, thousands of people died when Those Above took our weapons away. Soldiers, sailors, aviators of the world’s military services – honourable people for the most part – were killed in their planes, tanks and ships. Space launching facilities, as at Kennedy, Baikonur and Vandenberg, were taken out of action with the loss of numerous workers. And later, when the beams started picking out individual hand weapons, non-military personnel died too. Hunters, militia, survivalists, criminals – anyone unfortunate enough to have been holding a gun when the beams came down. Most such people didn’t survive the experience – but some lucky few came through with surprisingly light injuries. Governments and media alike worked to whip up public rage and hatred towards Those Above – without apparent regard to how such passion might be targeted, since we no longer had any weapons that could reach Them. But over time, the public began to compare what had been done to what might have been done. They began to realise that the deaths were collateral: in every case, as people pored over footage of burning and sinking ships, or studied individual casualty reports, it became apparent that it had been the weapons that had been targeted, and not the people. Aircraft had been struck down – but only where they were armed. Ships had been cut open at their weapons emplacements or ammunition stores – and reports from around the world suggested that a sizeable portion of vessels had been disabled first, and subsequently destroyed only after a period of time had elapsed. In some cases, the crews had managed to use that time to abandon ship and were spared; in others, they had made the decision to stay at their posts, and were killed. Bad luck, perhaps – but evidence that their deaths hadn’t been the main aim. Military vehicles or personnel actively involved in fighting were targeted – at least, their weapons and vehicles were targeted; but over and over again, the same pattern emerged: Those Above were evidently not averse to killing humans, but they appeared determined to do so sparingly.
Soon, despite the media’s insistence that Those Above were evil monsters, the prevailing view amongst the peoples of the world – at least those who hadn’t lost loved ones in the forces – took a surprising turn: They had disarmed us. They had stopped the wars. Those determined to keep killing adapted, of course: even now, in my own city, robberies are carried out at knifepoint rather than gunpoint (which was never that common anyway), and gangs field catapults, petrol bombs and even swords and bows in their confrontations.
But nations, whole nations, have nothing to fight with any more. International wars are a non-starter. And They still watch us: attempts to construct more guns or bombs – even makeshift ones in cellars and basements – are still halted by the fires that stab down without warning out of the sky. They pay no attention to anything else we do, it seems, but They don’t want us shooting each other, They don’t want us communicating too easily, and They don’t want us going into space. We don’t know Their reasoning, and I suspect we never will. Unless They suddenly decide They want to talk, I think Their decisions will remain a mystery to us.
It’s 16:57. I watch the reporter for a few more seconds as he goes through the motions, and then I jab the remote again. The screen goes black. I lean over and pick up my book from the arm of the chair where I’d left it.
Signal Day. Humbug.