The Lazy Writer

Peter Williams

No-one knew where it came from; it just appeared in the sky that morning: a one-thousand mile long, one-mile in diameter cylinder of light. 55-miles up, where the mesosphere meets the thermosphere, it cycled gently through the colours, standing still as the world turned beneath it.

Some swore it was a portent of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which the "The End Of The World Is Nigh!" brigade didn't take nearly as philosophically as you might think.

Others claimed it was probably a publicity stunt, whilst others still blamed global warming but most just enjoyed the pyrotechnics.

Speculation aside, as the officer in charge of the Air Force Optical Physics Laboratory, I was only interested in facts and three of those were readily apparent: it was a construct of a technologically-superior society, it was growing rapidly to encircle the Earth and was broadcasting a coded signal across the full electromagnetic spectrum (making it un-jammable). But the worst part was that I had to tell all of that to General Alexander T Grove.

The walls of the makeshift war room were covered with maps and photos. A dozen airmen, bathed in the glow of computer monitors, were shouting down the phones, and the general's reaction still drowned them all out.

I'd tell you what he said, but cut-out the swearing, and all that's left is a few conjunctions and a suggestion on where I should put my broad-spectrum analyser that not only displays a fundamental misunderstanding of human anatomy but would make the controls very difficult to reach.

I decided to make myself scarce until he calmed down on the grounds that he was a huge, trained killer, and I was small, weedy, and had never won a fight unless you count moral victories.

A visit to Cryptography, to check on how decoding the signal was going, resulted in the unsurprising news that code-breakers aren't the best people to get straight answers from.

I picked up a nerve-steadying coffee on the way back, "You said it was ... electroluminescent?" Grove glared at me as I reentered the room.

"
Right. Although most of the technology is far beyond our understanding, the power-source would appear to be the electrically-charged gas that fills the light cylinder.”

"
Good, then we can blow it up!”

"
That could be an extremely dangerous thing to do.”

"
We don't have a choice; we can't let it go on broadcasting state secrets!" Grove roared.

"
Who said anything about state secrets?"

"
It's an alien device, what else would aliens want?”

"
But igniting a huge volume of gas like that could start a chain reaction, setting the atmosphere on fire!”

"
Better that than let the alien invaders enslave us!”

"
What alien invaders?" I squealed.

"
Why would they want state secrets, unless they planned to invade?”

Things had gotten surreal so fast that I stared into my cup, trying to decide if my drink had been drugged or if I was having a stroke, "Can we at least wait until the signal is decrypted before we start pole-vaulting to conclusions ... er, sir?”

"
You have until I can get authorisation to deploy missiles!"

All the phones were in use so back to Cryptography I sprinted. "Look," I said to the cryptographer, "I know you said it's not ready, but geek-to-geek, is it near enough?"

The tall, bespectacled man nodded reluctantly. "It turned out to be more of a translation than a decryption, and grammatical considerations mean the wording might not be right, but the intention is certainly clear enough." he handed me a printout.

I read it, cursed and started racing back. When I joined the military, my drill instructor had said we should be able to run five miles in full kit without breaking sweat. I wished he was there to give me a piggyback because frankly I was exhausted.

Grove was on the phone as I arrived, "Thank you, sir, you've made the right decision," he said before hanging up.
"Wait!" I gasped. "There's no invasion! No-one's coming!" I handed him the printout before collapsing to my knees.

He turned purple with rage as he read the one sentence that was repeated over and over again:
"Keep Clear: Infested With Humans!”