“The Soft Invasions” (1300 words)

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Part One

Arrival of the Rose Petal

“Happy birthday, Gretta,” said Dr. Aperta. “I suppose everyone else will have forgotten.”

She smiled at Gretta Lau, who had been concentrating not on herself, but on a development.

“Your thirtieth, I believe,” continued Dr. Aperta, her smile bringing the creases around her eyes into relief. A little envy mixed in with the good wishes, possibly, despite the warm feeling Gretta knew her old mentor bore for her.

“I’d have forgotten it too, if you hadn’t said anything,” Gretta replied. Why wouldn’t she? What did a birthday matter at a moment like this—during some of the most significant events in human history?

 Dr. Aperta looked at the image on the secure laptop that so enthralled Gretta. So enthralled—and terrified—every human being who had been cleared to see it: The extraterrestrial vessel now orbiting the Earth.

“They’re saying to refer to it as Rose Petal now,” said Gretta. She had got that from the latest diplomatic cable.

“What? They changed it from object Summer Storm?” asked Dr. Aperta.

“No, apparently it’s really called Rose Petal—or the equivalent.”

“Remarkable,” said Dr. Aperta. “The design of the hull suggests a gathering of flower petals—if one stretches one’s definition sufficiently. Assuming that information’s accurate, then the invader’s language has nouns and modifiers. With each little speck of new information we learn so much—because we begin with so little knowledge. Curiouser and curiouser.”

Gretta stared out the lab window into the blue Mediterranean night. “The cable was from State. They want the weapon employed,” she said.

Dr. Aperta said nothing for a moment. She put her hands behind her back and clasped them together. Her Parkinson’s tremors became more pronounced during stress.

“Do they?” Dr. Aperta said finally. She proceeded thinking it through, absorbing it, in her way. Gretta was unsure anymore whether the increasingly long pauses in Dr. Aperta’s speech were due to deterioration or a kind of twilight contemplation. “I suppose they do.”

Gretta turned back to the secure laptop.

“What do you think, Gretta?”

“It’s not up to me.”

“It shouldn’t be anyone,” said Dr. Aperta. “Only it is. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

“Then will you kindly give me your opinion?”

“My opinion is that I am glad it is not my decision, ma’am.”

“A luxury of youth,” said Dr. Aperta bemused. “Very well, I’ll not press you. Perhaps it is only an old scientist’s cowardice that makes me seek your opinion out.”

“You are not a coward,” said Gretta.

“That’s nice of you to say. Send the cable. You know what to say.”

Gretta did so.

Within a day, the sky was clear.

Part Two

Arrival of the Pine Cone

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” gushed Andre Horstfelt. “Have you, Doctor?”

Doctor Gretta Lau had. Thirty years ago. “Have they given it a designation yet?” she asked.

The graduate student looked over the info that had just flowed to the secure device. “Says here—Pine Cone. I guess I can see that. It certainly is a foreboding looking structure. It’s the size, approximately, of four Manhattans islands.

Talking of islands, Gretta stepped out of the lab, into the hills of the one they were on, and gazed across the bay to Oakland.

Andre joined her after a moment. Bringing her—unbidden—her wool sweater. She resented the gesture despite its benevolent motivation. When had she turned from young idol-smasher to brittle ancient?

Swallowing her resentment she took the sweater. She smiled, hoping the smile would register kindness. “How old are you, Andre?”

“Me, ma’am? I’m twenty-four.”

“Just twenty-four.” She’d genuinely forgotten that. A quiet, hardworking, and motivated boy. “I was thirty before I had come anywhere near as far as you have already in your career, Andre.”

“But look how far you’ve come since then!”

“You must learn to accept a compliment without giving one back, Andre. Swallow your modesty and take what you’ve got coming will you?”

He smiled with deprecation. “I’ve been very lucky,” he said.

She supposed it was time to move off the subject. “What else?” she asked.

Andre’s clever face turned pious. “They want the weapon employed.”

“Yes,” she said, and then echoed words she had never forgotten, “I suppose they do.”

“I can put everything in motion. Just need your say so, Doctor.”

“What would you do in my place?”

Andre looked like he didn’t quite understand the relevance of the question.

“I’m just curious, Andre. Tell me what you think?”

“Ma’am. I suppose I can only answer that with a question of my own. What did we build the weapon for?”

“Hm. To deal with hypotheticals. And because we could. One could also ask, what did the invader build Rose Petal for?”

Andre consulted his device. “Rose Petal, ma’am?”

She caught her mistake and waved her hand. “An old assignment. Rose Petal, Pine Cone, whichever. What do they build theirs for?”

Andre seemed to consider his response. “I suppose,” he said finally, glancing to the clouded heavens, “that if we have completed our tasks well, and if we now do our duty, we will never know the answer to that question.”

“Never is a long time, son.” said Gretta.

Part Three

Arrival of the Stinger

“Do they want the weapon employed?” Gretta Lau asked. She shifted in her chair, which her chair mistook for a command to move around to the left side of the desk. Her chair was more alive than she was.

Esmeralda Quinto looked at the dispatch again. “I don’t see them requesting that. But how could they, ma’am? The invader is months away still, at least.”

Years was more like it.

“No, of course,” said Gretta. “But when you’ve worked on these kind of contracts as long as I have, you learn to expect they’ll demand the impossible.”

Esmeralda smiled. “No one has lasted in the field as long as you have. No one ever will, I suspect.”

“I suppose that’s true,” said Gretta. “What did you say they are calling it?”

Esmeralda checked the info again. “Stinger. Undetectable to the eye, but its density gives it away.”

Yes, it would.

“Even without the message it sent,” said Esmeralda.

“The message? What message?”

“From Stinger. Fifteen minutes ago, I told you that the mass sent a mes—” She stopped, too late to pull her words back and embarrassed for her mentor, no doubt.

“I’m sure you did,” said Gretta kindly. “My brain, despite all the miracles of our age, still runs up against some biological limits.”

“I don’t know any other hundred-thirty-year-olds sharp as you.”

“You don’t know many hundred-thirty-year-olds at all, I should hope. At your age you should go out dancing. Or something. Have some fun.”

“Not a lot of nightclubs in Antarctica.”

“There must be one.” Gretta pressed. “We’re speaking of an entire continent.”

“Maybe one or two nightclubs.”

“You should go. Consider it an order, if you must, to have fun.”

The young woman smiled the indulgent smile youth gives to age when it intends—like every creature—to do as it pleases, regardless.

“I hope you go out,” said Gretta vacantly. Vacantly and proud that she could still discern and uses subtleties like politeness. “Now, read me the message from Stinger.”

“There are several versions, this is the English one: ‘We’ve enjoyed getting to know you over the years and have found you a worthy opponent. However, with great respect, we now end our relationship. We feel we have grasped the essence of your culture. Your participation is no longer warranted.’ It’s a bit odd, isn’t it? The last line’s cryptic, but certainly abrasive. What is Stinger, ma’am? Are you allowed to say?”

“What would your guess be?”

“A weapon,” said Esmeralda, solemnly and with the confidence of youth. She thought she was going to live forever, no doubt. After a moment she asked, “Who’s weapon is it?”

“The winner’s,” said Gretta.