Better Later Than First

[StoryADay May Prompt: “When Your Character Is Like You“]

I kept the radio off the entire way up to cabin. Between the desert and me there was mostly only heat and people in motion with little sound other than the stream of air by the car and occasional honking. My car passed three young white men in an old pickup truck jacked up on its axles and thumping with music, and they started pointing and honking without being able to see inside. This went on for a couple miles while they refused to let my car move over into the right lane, but it must have reported them, because soon an automated police vehicle chased them off an exit. I was free to relax again.

I wasn’t able to relax, though. The silence confirmed the bubble I had retreated into, but any comfort I might have gained was lost in the feeling that I was being chased. It was a chase that wasn’t limited to something coming from behind or car enthusiast nuts protesting self-driving vehicles; I felt the chase all around my bubble, around this ridiculous notion that I needed to head into the cooler and less populated mountains of eastern Arizona, deposit myself alone in a cabin in the wood, and wait to learn if the world was coming to an end.

From Tucson to Oracle via Oracle Road, then highway diagonally through the state, and then backroads I gave the car free reign to select after prohibiting any further highway driving, I lay back in one of the two seats, the space free of much else. The temperature was cool enough and the trip long enough that sleep would have been a good option. I didn’t. I couldn’t shut my eyes until I was far away from city centers, even towns. Maybe after I reached the cabin and checked the news feeds to hear the latest, I might lie down. Or I might find myself glued to video. Until then, if I let the media in the pit in my stomach would widen and I might, in motion, without distance enough yet, and only just beginning to fathom the depths of my fears, find myself unable to function at all. At the cabin, I could collapse and in perfect isolation allow panic to fill all that empty space. But not on the road. Not here where I did not have total control.

The car drove and I watched the miles fly by at between 55 and 75 miles per hour. So slow. Almost slow enough that I wanted to check back in with the world. I thought about why it might be a good idea to enjoy the view. That was another reason to head into the mountains: finding a view that I might like to savor. I could have chosen more distant locations and longer trips, but it was helpful to constrain my travel to a few hours. Any longer and developments were likely well beyond the distance I could travel. Besides, I might end up with a better view, but be in more danger than ever. Next to the ocean or other large bodies of water? My favorite vistas, but also the sites of some of the most awful ways to die I could imagine. Dying in the wood seemed so much more, well, potentially less painful, and possibly later delayed.

What actually was I doing? The decisions I had made in just the past few hours I made as if I knew exactly what to do. What had been clear to me in Tucson when the news broke was that I needed to find a cabin in the woods for rent immediately. I let my digital assistant make the necessary arrangements while two televisions, one curvetop, and one tablet provided news coverage from different sources. I ordered provisions while most of the world was caught up in the excitement. I dipped into my savings without qualms. Was a month long enough? Make it two. The world’s digital and intelligent systems worked for me with ease and without delay to honor my urgent wishes.

Finally on the road and letting the car take me to where I wanted to go, I had time to reflect on my choices. I uncovered no obvious flaws, except for one persistent concern that I my assumption there were locations on Earth safer than other. That, clearly, was the assumption that had been driving me all morning. My mind had readily found what it thought to be the best solution in a very short amount of time, and once obtained, there was no need to wait.

When friends and family called me before I left, I listened but barely said a word in response except to invite them to continue speaking. How they came to call me, of course, is easy to understand: I’m the nerd they know. I’m the one they expect to have lots to say. Events were momentous enough, however, that they willing to fill our conversations with my minimal involvement.

What could I tell them? Being a nerd didn’t give me any answers in this case. As much as I had read about this very event, all that fiction and speculative nonfiction, it turned out none of it was applicable. Not yet. Not at the very beginning when there were no answers and only video footage.

What I could do was get out of Dodge, and that place for me was any concentration of people. I was worried about myself, and it wasn’t time to start worrying about anyone else yet. Or it was long past time. Either way, the best place I could be was far away.

I ran away.

The southwestern desert rising from its floor through its cactus- and shrub-fuzz mountain benches gains with elevation more temperate climate, fauna, and flora, frequently monoculture pine forests and small towns with names like Snowflake or Drift. During the winter, snow, and the rest of the year, enough moisture pulled out of dry air and pulses of atmosphere activity to maintain green natures and manageable temperatures. The sparse population was attractive, too, and so the mountain islands high above the desert was the immediate solution out of the space of geographical possibilities most accessible to me and still functioning systems of logistics and technology. My flee response: efficient use of immediate resources and intelligence. My gut reaction: get out now and don’t tell anyone. Time enough for that if all goes well. Time saved if everything went to hell. Time wasted depending on just how much danger the Earth was in.

The car announced that I was only an hour away from my new home, permanence to be determined. I had waited to leave until the very last notification of provisions delivered. This morning the last jugs of water had been left inside the delivery storage unit next to the cabin, locked away from unlikely intruders but ready to unlock as soon as I arrived. Inside was food enough for two people for two months, much of it prepared goods, but some of it fresh, including select GMO vegetables and fruit to last me at least the first two or three weeks of my isolation. I also thought to order some medical and cleaning supplies. After three hours of mentally listing over and over again everything I had ordered, I finally acknowledged that my panicked mind had been comprehensive. I would want for nothing, except maybe companionship, and not that until much later.

How long did we have? It depended on what the ship did, the one hovering over the Atlantic Ocean. It depended on if there were others. It depended on who was inside. It depended on what they wanted. It depended on how humans reacted. It depended on things I had no way of knowing ahead of time, until the ship made the first move, or we did, and consequences unfolded, too many of them to chart even with my comprehensive knowledge of first contact-related science fiction. Once I arrived at the cabin, once I cocooned myself inside the best shelter I could arrange given such short notice, then I would allow myself to think through all the possibilities while following the latest coverage by the media.

What my friends and family thought was that I would be eager to get as close as possible to the ship. To them I would be nothing less than a present spectator to one of the most transformative moment in human history. I would be drawn there, they assumed, because they thought they knew me, they thought they understood what first contact meant to me. It did, in fact, mean to me many of the things I imagine they imagined it did.

But first contact was never going to be like it was in the books or movies. While the car turned off the current road and drove higher along increasingly winding paths through the parallel certainty of the same species of tree carpeting the landscape, I watched the sky. I watched how it retained its blue depth streaked with white. I watched how it did not reflect what was happening over the Atlantic, and that was a good thing. I thought about my hopes and my fears and the way it was impossible to know yet which would be granted.

First contact was for others. For me, I would delay contact as long as possible. If there was no terror from the sky, then I would wait and learn and avoid whatever consequences unfolded, both above our fragile planet and on its volatile surface, among its volatile lifeforms, and especially its volatile so-called masters, a humanity who had not yet figured out how best to live together, and had just learned that there were others out there at least as intelligent.

Exciting, yes, but also the best time for me to embrace caution. Nothing would be the same, one might say.

I arrived at the cabin.

StoryADay May 2016 Day 5

Published by

Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a fiction writer and poet, with his first published poem forthcoming later in 2017 from Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey. Richard is also the Downlink Lead for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team at the University of Arizona. He monitors images of the Martian surface taken by the HiRISE camera located on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars and helps ensure they process successfully and are validated for quick release to the science community and public. Once upon a time, Richard wrote and edited the science and technology news and commentary website Frontier Channel, hosted the RADIO Frontier Channel podcast, and organized transhumanist clubs. Follow Richard on his website (richardleis.com), on Goodreads (richardleis), his Micro.blog (@richardleis), Twitter (@richardleisjr), and Facebook (richardleisjr).