By Harold Hoss
Vadim Sadovski/ shutterstock
Solomon gently closed the bedroom door. He lingered for a moment just past the threshold, staring straight ahead. He’d shared this bedroom with his wife Nicole for twelve years, and yet this was the first time he could remember looking at the door. Actually looking at it.
He did the math quickly in his head. Discounting any holidays or trips, even if he had only seen this door twice a day, shortly after waking up and just before bed, that would have meant he had seen this door four thousand, three hundred and eighty times over the last twelve years. And yet, he didn’t think before today, that he could have told anyone what color it was (he would have guessed ‘white’ when it was clearly ‘linen’ or ‘parchment’) or described it as anything but a door (it had scraped along the bottom and a silver doorknob that locked from within.)
From through the door, he heard Nicole scream. A low, guttural, hopeless sound that came from somewhere deep within, followed by a heavy thump as she knocked against something. He closed his eyes and tried to push the memory of her digging her long, perfectly painted red nails deep into her cheeks before dragging them down her face from his mind – but it was impossible. He knew it was a memory that would stick with him for the rest of his life, although that wouldn’t be much longer. He consoled himself, knowing that he had to tell her. She was better off knowing. Knowledge was always better than ignorance. It was a pillar on which he based his entire life. He saw no reason to change here in the last moments.
“Dad?” The sound of Raymond’s voice hit Solomon in the gut harder than any punch. He winced, wishing he could put off telling his son just a little longer, but knowing they didn’t have much time.
“Hey there, Ray,” Solomon said, forcing a smile.
Raymond stood a few feet away, his eyes wide with fear. Normally, Raymond had the sunny, carefree disposition of a child raised by parents who had clawed their way up into the middle class, intent on giving their child a better life. He played every sport and owned more instruments than he knew how to play.
“Is mom, okay?” Ray asked. “Is she scared about the internet?”
Solomon almost laughed. Just after the first whisperings spread across social media, someone, Solomon vaguely wanted to say the government, although he did not know and didn’t really care, had pulled the plug on the internet. Plunging into isolation a nation, maybe even an entire world, of people used to having everything and everyone only a few taps of a keyboard away.
“Let’s give her some space,” Solomon said, forcing a smile. He had made his mind up to try and explain, as best he could, to his son what was happening. “Come here. Let’s go get some air.”
At the end of the hallway, Ray hesitated. Children were naturally intuitive, and Ray was no exception. Ray had seemed to sense that the first day Solomon came home from work that something was wrong. The same way the old timers in the westerns could sense, a storm was looming just beyond a sunny horizon.
“What about mom?” Ray asked.
“Don’t worry, she’ll be fine,” Solomon said, walking down the hallway and placing a hand on his son’s narrow shoulders. “Come on.”
Solomon walked with his son out into the backyard. He lingered near the door and took a deep breath of suburbia. Freshly cut grass, concrete, and whiffs of chlorine from the neighbor’s pool. A thousand other smells Solomon had never noticed. He wondered, however, if it had always been this quiet. He thought there had usually been the sound of birds and insects, but they were mysteriously absent now. Perhaps they too sensed that storm just past the sunny horizon.
Keeping his hand on Ray’s shoulder, he walked him past the playground he had outgrown, past an old rusty pitch back for baseball, and into Nicole’s half-finished garden. A garden that now, Solomon reflected, she would never finish.
Once they were in the garden, it didn’t take Solomon long to find what he was looking for. A tiny ant hill rose out of one corner. The dirt around the anthill was loose and darker than the tightly packed dirt of the garden, and as they looked closer, they saw worker ants busily pouring in and out, going about their daily routine. Some ants carried leaves and seeds, and a few even worked together to drag the carcass of a moth toward the gaping maw of their dirt pyramid.
“You see that anthill?” Solomon asked.
Raymond looked down at the anthill. He peered at it, likely trying to guess why his father was showing him this. After all, Solomon’s passion had always been for the stars above. It was a passion that had driven him through college and into his job at the multi-observatory science reserve on nearby Cofer mountain. The twin ten-meter telescopes, housed in twin circular white domes perched next to each other, were nicknamed the boobs by any teenager who saw them and visible from their backyard.
“I see it, Dad.”
“They’re all doing their best. We can only see a tiny hill but beneath that, somewhere underground, there’s a whole colony. An intricate system of tunnels with different rooms of different sizes for different purposes. They’ve got workers and warriors, mothers and babies, even a queen. All down there. They’ve spent their whole lives building it. They’re proud of it. And we don’t even notice, do we?”
Ray blinked but Solomon pressed. He needed to hear his son answer.
“No,” Ray said, his lower lip beginning to quiver.
Solomon looked around and spotted his wife’s watering can a few steps away. Walking over, he picked it up, weighed it in his hand, and, satisfied that it was mostly full, walked back to stand beside Ray.
“We don’t notice it and without even thinking. Without even caring – we can destroy it. Because they’re ants. They’re ants and they’re small and next to us they mean nothing. Isn’t that right?”
As he spoke, Solomon tilted the watering can forward so that the water poured out of the nozzle and down into the anthill. Immediately, the ants writhed in panic, the dirt mound giving way beneath the sudden deluge of water from above. Seeing the ants squirm and watching the carefully constructed pyramid of dirt give way, Solomon remembered the hypothetical models they’d watched every day at the observatory.
One of Solomon’s colleagues working late was the first to spot the intergalactic visitor originally labeled 1I/2023 U1. Even a quick estimate of its size revealed it to have a mass at least 500 times greater than the last intergalactic object to pass through the solar system, 1l/2017 Oumuamua, and it was quickly nicknamed Papa Oumuamua. However, when further study revealed that 1I/2023 U1 wasn’t moving like a hyperbolic asteroid should. When everyone realized this might be it. The big one. Proof that humans aren’t alone in the universe. First contact. What every scientist who devotes their life to the stars hopes to find. The lab quickly renamed the object Kaimiloa, translated roughly as “explorer” or “one who seeks from afar.”
With all hands on deck, all eyes looking up, the hypothetical guesses about Kaimiloa’s speed and size were sharpened and brought into focus and a gnawing sense of dread began to eat away at the initial excitement. Not only was Kaimiloa revealed to be much, much larger than they ever could have anticipated but it was moving fast. Fast enough to churn through gravity fields and asteroid belts, kicking up storms and sending everything it passed spiraling out of control in its wake, like a speedboat cutting full speed across a placid lake.
That was what the hastily constructed hypothetical CGI models had shown. The ones they watched over and over hoping for a different outcome. Kaimiloa, racing full speed ahead, cutting straight through the center of their galaxy, the ensuing wake rushing over images of the sun and the planets – first Mercury, then Venus, and finally Earth – torn to pieces by the swarm of debris bearing down on them.
This might be first contact, but whoever – whatever – was aboard Kaimiloa wasn’t coming to see them. They weren’t coming in the name of peace or war, to trade or enslave or even to study. They were just passing through.
“Isn’t that right?” Solomon shouted again, watching the ants struggle below, the lucky ones tossed aside by the deluge of water while the unlucky ones kicked and squirmed beneath the water.
“Dad, stop!” Ray pleaded and, lunging forward, he knocked the watering can from Solomon’s fingers, before burying his head into his stomach. Solomon felt the heat of his son’s tears through his shirt and, with some surprise, he realized he was crying too. He watched the watering can, lying on its side, leak water out onto the ground.
A thousand hypothetical arguments voiced by his colleagues this last week raced through his mind. Each one boiled down to roughly the same idea: humanity was far smaller than anyone could have imagined. They would never solve the problem of how to traverse the stars for the same reason ants would never learn how to traverse the Atlantic. Humans were simply too small.
Solomon took a shuddering breath, not bothering to wipe the tears from his eyes. He thought about how simple it had been for the ants to get their brief reprieve. It had only taken one kid with a conscience to extend their lives, even momentarily.
He stroked the back of Ray’s head and looked up at the sky. Solomon had always been ambivalent about religion. The last week had done little to change that, although he had seen many of his coworkers transform into religious fanatics while others quietly gave up on their faith. Just like some people had stopped showing up to work immediately, while some were likely still up there in the observatory, still dutifully taking notes on what they saw through the telescope until the very end. The scientific equivalent of the band members who played their instruments as the Titanic sank beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
“We saw something through the telescope, Ray. A ship.” Solomon said.
Ray looked up at Solomon, fear in his eyes momentarily replaced by curiosity. “You mean, like aliens?”
Solomon nodded. It was strange, but nobody in the observatory had ever said the a-word. The term was too lowbrow. Aliens were slimy creatures or men in bad rubber costumes. Whatever came from the stars would be different.
“That’s right,” Solomon said. “Like aliens.”
Ray frowned. “Do they come in peace?”
Solomon hesitated. “They’re not coming. They’re just passing by.”
Ray’s frown deepened as he seemed to mull this over.
“I’m sorry. I just thought you should know,” Solomon said at last. “I just wanted you to understand.”
Up above them the sun, yet another thing Solomon had taken for granted every day of his life, dimmed as the dogs throughout the neighborhood began to bark and howl, their voices swirling together and rising into the darkening sky.
“But I don’t understand, Dad,” Ray said. “I don’t understand at all.”
Ray began to look around in a panic, his head swiveling from side to side as other animals took up the cry. As if they were all screaming one last time in frustration. Solomon patted the back of his son’s head. The low hum of static filled the air, reminding Solomon of the sound of the ocean on their trip to Destin last year. The low hum grew in pitch, turning into a roar that drown out first the sound of the animals, then even the sound of Solomon’s own thoughts in his head.
“I don’t either, son,” Solomon said, or at least he tried to say. A college degree, a master’s, a Ph.D., and an entire life spent studying the stars and he still didn’t understand.
According to their best estimates at the observatory, the wake would take at least eight minutes to reach Earth after it swept through the sun.
It took less than four.
The End (of everything)
About the author: Harold Hoss is a recovering entertainment attorney and a lifelong fan of horror. He is best known for his work as a producer on the feature films “The Unheard” (streaming on Shudder) and “Creep Box.” When he isn’t reading, writing, or watching movies – he can usually be found walking his dog, Margot. https://haroldhosshorror.wordpress.com/
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