The Watchers from Above by James Rumpel

Chaos ensues when a moon-sized spacecraft starts orbiting Earth, even though it seems to be doing nothing but watching; by James Rumpel.

The attendance at the Saint Benedict's High School class of 2004 twenty-year reunion was minimal. The lack of alumni attending the get-together was perfectly justified seeing that the world was about to end. While most reunions featured conversations about stuffy teachers or outlandish pranks, the conversations at this one dealt with the large alien craft that had been orbiting the Earth for the last six days.

"The vessel is large enough that it has affected the tides," said Captain David Wolfe. He was seated at a table with another St. Ben's graduate, Deb Barton.

"I believe it. The thing is the size of a small moon," added Deb. "The scariest part is that it's just sitting there. It's been nearly a week and it's done nothing. At least the rioting and looting have slowed down. Things are returning to normal, at least as normal as they can be with a giant space ship looking down from above."

A third person approached the table. He carried a pitcher of beer and three glasses. He greeted his friends with a relaxed smile. "Well, what do you know. Twenty years later and we are still all sitting at the nerd table."

"I must admit, however, that nerd table has done pretty well for itself," continued Thomas Abernathy while he set down his burden. He nodded in the direction of Deb. "We have a super-computer programmer." He pointed toward David and added, "We have an astronaut. And then there's me. I know an astronaut and a super-computer programmer." Thomas laughed, pulling up a chair and joining his comrades.

David smiled. "Oh, I think you've done better than just riding our coat-tails, Tom. I hear your firm is doing very well." He grabbed the pitcher and began pouring a glass.

"I was doing okay, but the market is really messed up right now. That's not important. What is important is that I have an astronaut sitting with me. You have to know some information about the space ship."

"Officially, I can't tell you anything. Unofficially, I can tell you that the news stories are pretty much accurate. The large craft arrived six days ago and has been circling the Earth in a non-synchronous orbit. It has not attempted to contact us nor has it responded to any attempt to communicate with it."

"So, what is being done about it?" asked Thomas.

"I know that the government has taken control of almost all the super-computers in the area. They have us running all sorts of data analysis," offered Deb.

"Doesn't the government have their own computers?"

"They are using every one they can get their hands on. They're running simulations and doing everything possible to try and find a way to communicate with the craft."

"What about you, David? You have to have some sort of insight."

David looked his high-school friend in the eyes. He gave an abbreviated nod. "Trust me, there's something in the works. Everyone is doing everything they can."

Thomas refilled his glass. "Well, I'm going to do everything I can. I'm going to continue to drink heavily."

David's heart nearly stopped when he pulled into the parking lot of his mother's apartment complex. An ambulance was parked, at an odd angle, directly in front of the building's entryway. His wife had not been specific about the emergency, just that he had to go to see his mother. The site of the emergency vehicle immediately brought about visions of the worst possible scenario.

His fears eased slightly when he saw the EMTs racing up the stairs to a second-floor room. His heartrate returned to normal when his mother answered the door of apartment 1C.

"Oh, David. I am so glad you came. I wanted to see you before I left." The seventy-year-old woman was still more than capable of caring for herself; a fact she demonstrated when she returned to her position at a sewing machine after a quick hug.

"What do you mean by that? You aren't leaving." David frowned, confused.

"That's why I wanted to talk to you. Have you heard about Oracle Richard? He knows what the thing floating around in space is. It is the vehicle that will take the chosen souls to heaven. It's waiting for us, but we can't wait too long. There is only room for one hundred forty-four thousand spirits to be taken."

"Mother, what are you talking about?"

"It's all right here on the internet. The Oracle predicted the ship's arrival five years ago. It says so, right on the website." She gestured towards her open laptop.

David picked up the small computer and examined the page which it displayed.

"The website has all the information on it," continued his mother. "There are even instructions on how to prepare your body for transport. I'm sewing the white robes now. I'm making them for you, Maggie and Tommie, as well as my own. If we use plastic bags, everything will be painless."

David set the laptop down and walked to his mother's position. He grabbed her, maybe too tightly, about the shoulders and stared into her eyes. "Mother, the thing in space is not what this Oracle says it is. It is not true. I can show you the websites of at least a dozen other doomsday cults that are claiming the same type of thing. They are all wrong."

Tears began to appear in the corner of the elderly woman's eyes. "That can't be. Charles Grey, that man in apartment 2B, finished his preparation this morning. He is already on the ship."

David waited until his mother looked directly into his eyes. "Mom. This Oracle is not right. I guarantee it. Trust me."

"But, what else could it be?" asked his mother. "I have the chance to go to heaven and see your father again. It can't be some kind of alien craft. God wouldn't do that to us. It's not right." No longer attempting to hold back her sadness, she fell into David's arms. He hugged her tightly, partly from compassion and partly to prevent her from collapsing.

"Sit down on the sofa, Mom. I'll pack you a bag. You're going to come and stay with us for a while. Everything will be okay. I promise." David could only hope his assurances would be correct.

David, Deb, and Thomas had decided to renew and encourage their friendship by gathering together on a more consistent basis. Each week, they met at a local bar for a drink. The discussion had, as usual, centered on the giant ship which still orbited the Earth. A significant secondary topic of conversation was the upcoming presidential election.

"I think Boyer is going to win in a landslide," declared Thomas. "People are sick of us just sitting here and doing nothing. He, at least, is going to be proactive."

"Boyer is nothing but a hate-monger." Deb shook her head in frustration. "He has everyone so scared of that thing. Wilson is handling it the way it should be handled. He's not overreacting. Wilson wants to know everything we can before we move."

Thomas set his half-empty glass on the table. "That's not what the majority wants. People look up to the sky every time this thing passes over and they get scared. It has been nearly a month and the people are starting to ask for Wilson to do something. What if the aliens have been studying us and finding our weaknesses? What if they are building weapons while we sit here doing nothing?"

David finally joined the conversation, "But we are doing things. We're finding out everything we can about that ship. It would be foolhardy to blindly attack."

Almost as if on cue, the television alerted the crowd to a news bulletin. Everyone in the establishment turned their attention to the screen.

"We interrupt this broadcast for a special report," came the voice of the announcer. "The Chinese government has launched a series of nuclear missiles towards the orbiting vessel."

All eyes and ears focused on the report. Radar imagery displayed the barrage of weaponry steadily approaching its target. Suddenly, the missiles were gone, exploded before reaching the craft.

"It appears that some sort of energy field has detonated the weapons before they reached the vessel. They appear to have been ineffective." The announcer continued his report, but most of the patrons began to slowly turn their attention away from the screen and back to their drinks and conversations.

"Now we have to wait and see what kind of retaliation there is going to be," proclaimed David, glumly.

Thomas stood, "I'm going to retaliate with another drink."

David stopped his car in the driveway of his suburban home. It had been five days since the failed Chinese attack and the orbiting ship remained silent. All preparations had been completed for his trip to Florida and the subsequent mission to get a closer look at the craft. He had two days and nights to relax and spend time with his family.

Maggie, his wife, greeted him at the door, a haggard look on her face. "Dear, I can't keep watching your mother all the time. I've got work and Tommie needs our attention. This just isn't working."

David took her in his arms, gave her a caring embrace and a loving peck on the lips. "I know. We will hire someone to come in and take care of Mom. I'm sorry I didn't do it earlier; I've been a little overwhelmed."

Maggie smiled, "I know dear. I have a couple of interviews set up for tomorrow."

"You are always one step ahead of me. That's just one of the reasons I love you."

"And one of the many reasons I love you is that you always have time for our son. You need to talk to him. They had an emergency drill in school today and I think it affected him quite a bit."

"I'm on it." David gave her another quick hug and went to Tommie's bedroom.

Eight-year-old Tommie sat on his bed, a comic book in his hands. He greeted his father, "Dad, we have to talk."

"This sounds serious. What is it, son?"

"I want a gun."

"Tommie, you are too young to have a gun."

"Marky Woods says that his dad is going to get him a gun. He even says that when Boyer is elected president there is going to be a law that everyone has to carry a gun."

David took a seat next to his son. "That is not true. Marky Woods' dad is wrong."

"Either way, I think I should have protection. If those green-skinned, bug-eyed bast..."

"Woah. Watch your language."

"Sorry, that's what Marky Woods calls them."

"Well, Marky seems to be a little misinformed."

"His dad knows all about this stuff, he works in a factory that is making guns and stuff."

"And your dad is an astronaut who is going to fly up to see the spaceship." David tapped his own chest with his index finger. "I think I know what's going on. You do not need a gun. Guns are very dangerous. There are lots of people hurt in gun accidents." He was not going to allow his son to be put in a position where he could be one of them. "I think you might need to find someone, besides Marky, to hang around with."

"But I really do think I need something to protect me."

"How about this? When I get back from Florida, I'll bring you a new bike helmet that can also serve as an alien attack defense helmet." David reached around Tommie, grabbed his far shoulder. and gave him a quick squeeze.

"Okay." Tommie nodded as he returned the squeeze. "But a gun would be really cool."

The shuttle floated in space, a safe distance from the alien ship. All of the probes which had been launched toward the gigantic vessel had failed to reach the surface of the craft, stopped by the invisible energy field. David and his crewmate, Captain Rachel Ryan, had circled the spaceship multiple times. What they had discovered was little more than what had already been uncovered from Earth.

The craft was cylindrical in shape. Its length was approximately twelve hundred kilometers. The diameter of its base about half of that. There were no visible ports or entry bays to the craft. It appeared to be completely solid, made from an unidentified dark silver-colored material.

"Maybe it's nothing but a piece of space junk," suggested Rachel. "Just some flotsam that happened to float into orbit."

"It seems to be pretty well protected for a piece of garbage," replied David. "Besides that, when it arrived, it clearly behaved as if it was being piloted into position."

"I know. But why would something orbit our planet for nearly two and a half months and never do a thing? It's just weird, and, kind of, spooky."

"I'm with you on that..." David let his voice trail off into silence as he stared at the cigar-shaped monstrosity. While he visually inspected the side of the craft, for the fourth or fifth time, he perceived a slight glint on the surface of the craft. He didn't see anything, but somehow, he could tell there was a minuscule difference in the surface of the vessel. Doubling his focus, David discovered a second discrepancy in the smooth outer layer of the ship.

"Rachel, do me a favor. Stare at the side of the craft, about halfway along its length. Really focus on it."

Rachel obliged. "I don't see anything, it's just the same silver... wait. That's weird. I can't see a difference; however, I know there is some sort of shape there."

"There are more. Keep looking. They are extremely subtle, but there seem to be characters or symbols on the side of this thing."

"I would never have noticed them, but you are right. I bet they wouldn't show up on any kind of photograph or imagery."

"I agree. It's like we are seeing them with our mind, and not our eyes."

"I think we need to draw what we are each seeing. We can check if we are getting the same symbols."

"Great idea, Rachel. We can send what we get down to the control center and they can start analyzing it. At least we found something. This trip wasn't a total waste."

"I really want to thank you, David," said Deb. The two friends sat at a corner table away from the more vocal bar customers. "Because you found that writing on the ship, I get to use my computer to try and translate those symbols. It is a lot better gig than what they had me doing before. I was running data on the change in tides, looking for a message hidden in the patterns of water movement. This is much more interesting." She offered her glass for a toast.

David's glass clinked against hers. "Well, that's why we went up there, to make your life more interesting."

"And for that, I thank you."

David glanced around the small, nearly three-quarter full, barroom. "So, is Thomas joining us? I've been out of the loop, with my mission and all."

"Thomas' wife has decided that he's been doing a little too much drinking since the ship's arrival. To be honest, I think she's correct."

"Yeah, that's too bad. I suppose with the economy down like it is and with that thing looming overhead there are a lot of people finding solace in a bottle."

"So, are you going to watch the debate? The election is only two weeks away and all the analysts are still saying it is too close to call."

David sighed; the air passed slowly through his lips. "I know I'm voting for Wilson, but, yeah, I'll watch it. I'm amazed that so many people have bought into Boyer's fear tactics."

"Really?" Deb raised an eyebrow. "I think it's amazing that the race is as close as it is. People are afraid. I hope Boyer loses, but I won't be surprised if he wins."

"After four months of total inactivity, you would think we could forget about that thing. It might be there for the rest of our lives and never do anything."

"Not everyone thinks that way. Many people support the elimination of that craft. That's what Boyer is promising."

David rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. "Well, from what I have seen, that is not going to be an easy promise to fill."

David sat alone on his sofa. Maggie had made it perfectly clear that she had no intention of watching "that stupid" debate. Tommie was already tucked in and fast asleep. David's mother was also down for the night, in her computer-free bedroom; the nurse having been sent home.

President Wilson spoke first. He, as always, was eloquent and professional. He explained that his tactic of studying the alien craft before action was designed to protect the people of the planet. There was no need to provoke the beings that had sent the ship. He touted himself for the success of his strategy. In four months, the giant vessel had not done any harm toward any human being. He proposed that mankind go on with normal life, maintaining vigilance, but living as always. Wilson also discussed other programs for stimulating the economy and promoting scientific discoveries. If mankind was going to be part of an expanded universe, they had to be prepared.

The tone of the debate changed greatly when Senator Russel Boyer took the podium. "We cannot sit here and do nothing while unimaginable evil hovers barely a thousand miles above our planet. Do not give these invaders the benefit of a doubt. They are the enemy. Unlike the current administration, I will take steps to eliminate the threat. I will protect our nation and our world."

Raucous cheers erupted from a group of Boyer supporters. He continued. "Mr. Wilson might say that the spaceship has done nothing to our planet. Just by being there it has been a conveyor of death and suffering. The global economy is falling apart. Suicide rates have increased ten times their previous high. Acts of terrorism, throughout the world, have increased dramatically. How long will it be until some ill-advised country decides that they have nothing to lose and launches a nuclear attack."

"We cannot live a normal life with that thing orbiting our planet. Our friends, the Chinese, had the right idea. They just did not have the resources to succeed. I will immediately begin a global initiative to pool our planet's resources and devise a means to destroy the alien threat. I will get rid of them!" Additional loud, boisterous cheering ensued. To David, it was clear which candidate was gaining the upper hand in this debate.

A week before the election, the craft left. There was no fanfare. Observers and radar simply saw the vessel change its orientation and begin moving away from Earth. After a short time, it simply disappeared. Scientists theorized that it had initiated some sort of hyperdrive or shifted to a different dimension. Whatever the means, the vessel was gone.

People everywhere celebrated the departure of the ominous vessel. The trio of St. Benedict graduates made certain to allow themselves an opportunity to join the revelry, albeit in a subdued manner.

"Thomas, I am so glad you could join us. Grab a chair. There's got to be one somewhere in this place." Deb glanced around the packed establishment searching for an empty seat.

"That's okay," said Thomas. "I can't stay long. The watching aliens may be gone, but my watching wife is still here." He smiled at his joke. "I had to stop by and join you guys for a little while, though."

David raised his glass of soda, "We appreciate that, friend."

"So, Tom," began Deb, "David and I were discussing what we think the ship leaving means. Boyer is really pushing the agenda that the aliens have scouted us out and are going to return with their armies."

"As large as that ship is and as powerful as their defenses, they wouldn't need reinforcements," offered David. "I honestly believe they were on a scientific mission. They watched us and learned about us and are just going to leave us alone."

Thomas shrugged his shoulders. "I think that's just wishful thinking on your part. They will be back, someday. Just their presence has changed the way we have to think about the future."

"Well, they are gone now," concluded Deb. "Maybe life can return to some semblance of normal. There were no alien vessels, that we know of, for thousands of years. Maybe it will be that long before they come back."

David surveyed the many joyous patrons of the bar. "I think that is what everyone is hoping for."

"Well, maybe not Boyer," added Thomas as he flashed a wry smile.

President Russel Boyer was conducting a cabinet meeting when an aide interrupted with an important announcement. The young military officer waited until the President extended his hand before giving him the memo.

"So, what does this say?" the President asked. "Give me the short version."

"Well, sir. Remember the characters that the shuttle found on the side of the alien vessel. There have been computers working for months trying to decode the message. One of them finally found a similarity between those symbols and the characters used in an extinct Egyptian dialect. It is definitely not a perfect translation, but the experts say that they are about 85% certain that they know what the message on the side of the ship said."

Boyer looked at the paper he held in his hand. A small, sly smile found its way onto his face. "PRIMITIVE PLANET OBSERVATION TOURS - SHIP 4," he read. "That sounds harmless enough. I guess, we better not let word of this out until after we get the new Interplanetary Defense Bill passed. People might take this to mean that there is not an imminent threat. If we let this information out it might be harder to get funding for the planetary force field."


  1. Funny commentary on human nature.
    Good story, entertaining plot. I like the wryly humorous ending.

  2. Interesting study of the many reactions possible under such a scenario. I love that tourism continues to flourish for such an advanced civilization!

  3. Fun story. Reminded me a little of "Mountain" by Liu Cixin.