The Visitor: A Short Story

I wrote this short story as a submission piece for a much-loved science fiction publication celebrating its 50th anniversary - and won the 2021 short story competition.

The story was really written on impulse, a fun project that took around four days, and I enjoyed writing it so much that it’s going to form part of a multipart short story compilation based on it that I’m putting together for publication later this year.

If you’d like to read The Visitor, here it is. Enjoy!

Oh - and if you like my writing, please consider subscribing to my reader list at the bottom of this page. I’d really appreciate it!

The Visitor

Des Brown


“It’s actually a time machine,” he said sharply, and more than a little pompously, just a few minutes after I first met him.

I was at a celebratory party in Johannesburg arranged by friends of mine, old high school buddies, an upwardly mobile group of scientists and innovators whose recent accomplishments included – among others – collaborating on the SpaceX BFR design, developing a low-cost water filtration device commissioned by the UNHCR, and working as part of the South African contingent team at CERN.

Unlike me, they were actually highly qualified and jaw-droppingly smart, and they’d already accomplished some amazing things, despite their relative youth. By comparison, I was the very definition of a career slacker: unsettled, curious, aimless, with neither academic bragging credentials nor any kind of actual wealth or success to show for my erratic efforts at life.

The one skill I did have, though, was a healthy dose of dry cynicism combined with a (mostly inappropriate) sense of humour, which had the habit of sabotaging me at the most inopportune times. And at the poolside on this particularly beautiful evening, surrounded by happy, champagne-drinking overachievers who had quite clearly not only won the intellectual genetic lottery, but probably designed it too, I decided that it might be better to simply surrender to the absurdity and see where it took me.

The man I was speaking to was unknown to me. I had no idea how he was connected to the group and of course I didn’t particularly want to know. Although I was chiefly there in my role as a journalist to write an article on the occasion celebrated by my friends, I had also welcomed the opportunity to just relax, enjoy the party, and catch up with one or two acquaintances who I had been longing to see again.

Well, really just one, if truth be told.

“I see you’ve already met Marguerite,” I said, catching her eye over his shoulder and raising my glass in an apologetic acknowledgement. She smiled back, dipping her chin as if to indicate that she understood my predicament and was forgiving of my absence.

He half-turned his head as if momentarily acknowledging the presence of a painting on a wall, before engaging me again.

“Indeed,” he said, drawing out the word in an oddly precise but clipped English accent that sounded like he was auditioning for a Sherlock Holmes role. “A delightful woman, I’m sure.”

A de-lateful woman, I’m shore. I mocked his accent in the recesses of my childish mind for a brief moment.

She was. And if I could get rid of Randolph Bancroft – as he had introduced himself – quickly enough, I could get down to the serious business of revitalizing my relationship with my occasional lover.

“Sorry, Mr Bancroft,” I said, trying to retrace my train of thought. “Did you say-”

He nodded a seemingly curt affirmation, a pretty sure indication that he was, indeed, mentally unsound. My justification for thinking this was because I have a proven record when it comes to attracting the attention of crazy people.

“Yes, I did. It’s a device for travelling through time. And the reason for my forwardness in telling you this, if you will indulge me, will quickly become apparent.”

Not quickly enough, I thought.

“Of course, you may be skeptical,” he said, the staggering understatement of the evening. “But I am hoping to sway you. And it’s very important that you believe me.”

“Okay,” I said slowly. “And why is that?”

Bancroft was a little older than I was, by my reckoning, and if the uncanny valley could be applied to a human, he was the poster boy. His clothing was… well, let’s just describe his fashion choice as eclectic, a vaguely unsettling blend of adequately dressed lawyer and digital nomad. Try to picture a less symmetrical version of Ryan Reynolds, sporting a handlebar moustache, wearing a cheap grey suit, and carrying a battered leather briefcase or valise of some sort. Add a pair of brass-rimmed, yellow-tinted spectacles that look like a badly designed steampunk prop, and a string of roughly shaped small dark stones wound around the left wrist like a chakra bracelet, and you start to get the picture.

He leaned in, and I was momentarily overwhelmed by the scent of old books, cherry tobacco, and peppermints.

“Because, my dear fellow,” he said, “something is going to happen that will have terrible consequences for our planet, and I’m depending on you to prevent it.”

I stared at him for a long moment before taking a very deep drink from the glass I was holding.

“Oh. Consequences for our… planet? Do you mean environmentally?”

Please just say yes and then go and bother someone else.

He shook his head.

“Unfortunately not. I’m, ah, referring to something a little more serious, I’m afraid.”

“Climate change is pretty serious in my book,” I said breezily.

“My good man,” he said, without a trace of irritation at my levity, “I fully understand why you would choose not to believe me. The curse of your era is that everything must be submitted to the sterile lens of skeptical scrutiny, which renders blind the classical faculties of mystery and intuition. So much observation of the universe without, and nothing of the universe within.”

He raised his eyebrows meaningfully.

“They are the same, you know. Inseparable.”

“So,” I said drily, ignoring his little lecture on the mystical, “which era are you from, then?”

Bancroft stood a little taller, as though readying for an inspection at a parade.

“To this place and time, I am but a visitor. However, the era within which I had the good fortune to be born, and from which I travel, is that of Her Royal Majesty, the Queen.”

“Queen… Elizabeth?”

He frowned.

“Good heavens, no. Queen Victoria.”

“Hmm. Queen Victoria of Great Britain. That would be halfway up the world from here. So, uh, what brings you to the Southern tip of Africa, in that case?”

He sighed.

“Your attempts at humoring me are understandable, if somewhat vexing. Nevertheless, quite predictable, given my abrupt appearance and somewhat outlandish pronouncement. But I do not have a great deal of time to explain everything in detail.”

“Mr Bancroft, I’m afraid-”

“Suffice to say that my window of transportation is somewhat limited. My colleagues have had to search - very diligently - for an extremely narrow conjunction that I could exploit in order to get to you, and I’ve had to do so under the utmost secrecy. It’s a very serious breach of the convention, you know. I have only this one opportunity, and I will have to return very soon, so it is rather important that you pay attention to me.”

I tried to suppress my annoyance. I’m usually happy to indulge the crackpots… but come on now. In the background, Marguerite was stripping down to her bathing suit.

I inhaled deeply.

“Alright. Hit me.”

He blinked.

“I shall do no such thing.”

I shook my head wearily.

“That’s not what – actually, never mind. What is it, exactly, that you think makes me so important?”

Somewhere inside the house, someone cranked up the volume, and the anthemic chorus from Europe’s Final Countdown echoed through the open windows and across the fairy light-illuminated garden, a seemingly fitting tribute in light of the burgeoning absurdity before me.

Bancroft stared intently at me, commanding my reluctant attention.  

“First contact,” he said, his eyes locked onto mine through his amber cosplay spectacles. “Nine days from now, the human race – as a technologically enabled sentient species – will no longer be alone in our solar system.”

I grabbed a full glass from the tray of a passing waiter. Sometimes, the best way to deal with staggering levels of psychosis in others is to simply ride it out. The cocktail would no doubt help.

“Oh,” I said, “Let me guess. The aliens – am I right? – are going to land in my back yard, and… I’m either going to have to fight them or convince them not to blow us all up.”

Bancroft smiled.

“Quite the wag. A suitable enough attribute, given your choice of profession.”

Before I could take offense, he continued.

“Oumuamua. Are you familiar with the name?”

“Of course,” I said with false confidence, racking my distinctly non-astrophysicist brain. “It was that, uh, thing that came through the solar system quite a few years ago…?”

He grimaced – I assumed, at my lack of scientific acumen, and, probably, general knowledge – and cleared his throat theatrically before continuing.  

“Yes. Now: Oumuamua was not – is not – a long-period comet, as so many of your modern supposed intellectuals would like to assert. The fact that it had no tail or coma should have been a dead giveaway. The truth is that it is a scouting device, a visitor, and when it passed by in the year two thousand and seventeen, it was already reporting back to the craft following it. The second vessel is capable of moving a great deal faster, and as I speak to you now, it is -”

He glanced down at some kind of pocket watch that he had fished from his jacket pocket.

“… already within thirteen and a half million miles of Earth.”

“Hold on a second,” I said. “It’s a great story, but even if it was true, and there’s going to be some kind of all-consuming threat to Earth because of it, how can you be exactly sure of what’s going to happen, anyway? And how do you know that whatever’s supposedly going to happen can even be changed?”

I had watched quite a few time travel-related movies and felt confident in my pseudo-intellectual rebuttal to his theory.

Okay, crazy dude, let’s play.

Bancroft stared at me as though I was an imbecile. He raised his left hand, tapped the little circlet of dark stones wrapped around his wrist.

“This. Is. A time travel device.”

He spoke slowly, as if to a small child.

“It operates by harnessing immeasurably small fluctuations in the Earth’s vibratory pattern – I believe your modern mavens know it as the Schumann resonance - to create folds in the firmament. And where there are folds, there are transportation pathways.”


“That means we’re able to travel through time. We’re able to see, at first hand, what has happened and what will happen. Most relevantly, we’ve also had ample opportunity to witness how seemingly unchangeable outcomes can be changed, with a little careful intervention.”

“Okay. But is that really a good idea? I mean, what if you get it wrong, or trigger something worse?”

I quietly commended myself on still being able to pretend that this was a serious conversation.

Bancroft’s moustache twitched.

“Generally, it is most certainly not a good idea. It’s against our charter for that very reason. But in this case, the extinction of humanity is virtually guaranteed unless we take action.”

“Hang on. First off, who’s ‘we’?”

“The Antiquarian Society, if you must know,” he said, his face momentarily unreadable. “And if you perchance should grasp the opportunity, you may come to know very well who we are. In fact, I look forward to welcoming you. But first, you need to know what it is that I am about to request of you, and why.”

I sighed.

“Fair enough. But after that, would you be kind enough to excuse me? I have someone waiting for me.”

“Allow me five minutes of your time,” he said, his demeanor oddly not as antagonistic as I had perhaps expected it to be. “A short recounting of history to come, if you will. Pray sit with me and I will endeavor to sway you.”

I nodded and we made our way to some seating that had been placed on the lawn under a sprawling Jacaranda tree, the luminescent purple blossoms littering the grass like pale butterflies in the semi-darkness. And it was there, amid the fragrance of the flowers and the sharp chlorine odor from the pool, that Bancroft imparted his account of history that was to come.

The vessel he had described would arrive in high Earth orbit, nine days from now. The visitors, contrary to popular memes, would be highly intelligent, pacifistic, and conspicuously non-confrontational. Their makeup would be part-biological, part-technological, and something else, an aspect of life that could perhaps be described as metaphysical in nature.

They would reach out, communicating with relative ease based on the extrapolation of language and custom assimilated through analysis of transmissions from Earth. As refugees, victims of a vast conflict that had unfolded unimaginably far away, their mission would be to request safe harbor, and perhaps even a permanent abode. In exchange, they would offer humanity access to certain technologies, both physical and non-physical, that would otherwise not be dreamed of for another five hundred years on Earth.

“Sounds pretty good to me so far,” I said, leaning back and crossing my ankles as I finished off my cocktail. “Not sure I see the problem with that, to be honest.”

Bancroft was sitting stiffly, seemingly distrustful of the mechanics of the garden lounger he had appropriated.

“The problem does not lie with the visitors,” he said, something softer entering his tone. “The problem lies with us. Humans. With the vexatious propensity of Homo Sapiens for duplicity and greed and betrayal.”

He went on to tell me how, in the turmoil of global shock and wonder at the appearance of the visitors, and the sudden requirement for international governmental and social consensus that would result, a rogue element would subtly assert itself.

An ideological coalition of military and industrial players would conspire to exploit the situation, with the tacit approval and funding of several high-profile arms manufacturers and financers. Analysts loyal to these consortiums would assure them that the visitors, highly peaceable and seemingly naive, possessed no credible means of defense and would be vulnerable to a surprise attack.

The strategy would be simple: a high-casualty false flag event staged by the conspirators, blamed on the arrivals, and instant Security Council countermeasures that would require decisive military action, capture and incarceration of the arrivals, with confiscation of all technology as the proceeds of victory.

Of course, the advanced technology was the grand prize: it would be appropriated for the supposed benefit of the human race, ostensibly as a safeguard against future ‘attacks’ from other, undefined, extraterrestrial sources.

This plan would be set in motion, and as the horror and outrage of the supposedly hostile and unprovoked false attack resonated around the world, the next step – swift military reprisal and capture of the visitors and their craft – would proceed, so they thought, with ease.

It would, Bancroft informed me soberly, turn out somewhat differently.

The arrivals, with access to shielding and sophisticated weaponry that had been until this point undetected and unsuspected, would respond to the joint operation with overwhelming retaliatory force, decimating two of the largest militaries on the globe within a matter of a days. In desperation, and with the support of allied countries, one of the now-crippled leading nations would then launch a nuclear strike on the visitor craft, now positioned in the Atlantic.

The attack would fail, the nuclear warhead redirected back toward the country of origin, where it would detonate on a major city, causing unimaginable devastation.

In the resultant breakdown of international power grids and communication systems, chaos would ensue, pre-emptive military protocols would be activated, and the result, an oddly ashen-faced Bancroft informed me, would be the triggering of a global nuclear holocaust.

An extinction level event.

I sat, in the silence after he had stopped speaking, and contemplated the empty glass in my hand. Of course, he was a lunatic – delusional and probably highly psychotic – but the conviction with which he’d delivered his apocalyptic vision was more than a bit unnerving. The hallmark of true insanity, I reminded myself, was exactly that kind of unswerving belief in the manufactured delusion.

“Look,” I said, as gently as I could. “I’m sure that to you this is all very real, maybe, and I understand that it might seem that way, but… I’m a journalist. Maybe you knew that already. But I deal in facts. I deal with corporate press releases and people winning prizes for their gardens and cats getting rescued from trees. If you’re maybe telling me this in the hope that I’ll-”

“Broken window,” he said abruptly.

I gaped at him.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said ‘broken window’. The window facing the garden on the side where your friends have their ridiculously immodest outdoor bathing tub is going to be broken, fortunately without serious injury.”

I blinked, stood up from the lounger.

“Right. I think I’m going to take my leave, Mr Bancroft. It’s been… interesting. But I really have to go now. If you…”

I hesitated for a moment.

“If you need to, you know, talk to somebody, I can recommend a very helpful professional who I’ve visited personally. She’s here in Joburg and she’s really reasonable.”

Behind me, the chatter and laughter of the group around the pool was interrupted by the crack and crunch of glass being shattered, the shards tinkling onto the stone verge between the house and the lawn. I whirled around in time to see one of the partygoers in the living room being pulled back by friends, having lurched accidentally into the broad window fronting the pool area. In the immediate aftermath, it looked as though the curtains had prevented him from being lacerated, and there was a momentary babble of consternation followed by exclamations of reassurance.

I swung back to face Bancroft, my scalp prickling. He had not moved.

Some years ago, I had experienced the misfortune of my car being stolen while I was inside a shopping mall. I remembered the odd feeling of disconnection with reality in the instant of coming out and discovering that it was gone: standing numb, puzzled, in a haze, somehow rationalizing that I must have parked it somewhere else. I must have. A refusal – utter, point-blank denial – that this could have happened.

Bancroft pulled out the odd fob-watch from his pocket again, glanced at it.

“I do not have much time left,” he said. “Now. Do you see the gentleman standing in the doorway over there?”

I shifted, followed the direction of his pointing finger. One of the guests, a man in his forties, dressed in a pair of baggy slacks and an open-necked shirt, was leaning against the doorframe of the small cottage adjacent to the house, idly smoking a cigarette as he scrolled through something on his phone, the screen illuminating his face in a pallid blue glow.

“That is Gus Hornsby. Doctor Gus Hornsby, to be precise. He is the senior scientist in charge of the Square Kilometre Array, along with Professor Julian van der Merwe.”

I shook my head.

“Sorry. The square… the what?”

“The large radio telescope array situated in your own country’s Northern Cape province. I’m somewhat disappointed that you don’t know of its existence, Mr Logan.”

He did, truthfully, sound quite disappointed. My mind was spinning; I felt as though I was somehow being spectacularly gaslighted, yet powerless to prevent what was happening to me.

“I want you to go over to him,” said Bancroft, his voice firm, “and ask him whether he has an update on an object he’s been tracking for the past two weeks. Tell him that you’re talking about Uniform Seven Zero Three.”

I shook my head, not in refusal, but in utter confusion and disorientation.

“Just do it,” said Bancroft, so compellingly that I could have sworn he was hypnotizing me. “Go. Now. Remember: Uniform Seven Zero Three.”

I found myself crossing the patch of lawn, skirting a flowerbed, approaching the man Bancroft had pointed out. He looked up as I drew near, dipping his head in polite acknowledgement. I stopped, squeezed my eyes shut, opened them again. He was looking at me quizzically.

“Doctor Hornsby?”

He nodded affably.

“Yes? What can I do for you?”

“Hi. I’m Ben Logan. I, ah… I wanted to ask you something. I hope you don’t mind-”

“Not at all,” he said, switching off his phone and pocketing it as he looked at me a little more closely. “With pleasure. What’s your specialty?”

I cleared my throat.

“Actually, I’m a journalist.”

He pursed his lips.

“Oh. Alright then. What is it you’d like to know?”

“I want,” I said, feeling like the world’s greatest idiot, “to know about something you’ve been tracking. On your, um, radio telescopes? Something called Uniform Seven Zero Three.”

Hornsby started as if he’d just been electrocuted, his eyes white in the shadows, the cigarette falling from his fingers and sparking as it landed on the ornamental flagstones.

He came out from under the narrow cottage porch with astonishing speed, and I instinctively recoiled, but he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me back into the shadows where he had previously been standing idle.

“Who told you that? Who are you?”

I stared at him in astonishment.

“I’m a journalist, I told you. Why are you - what does that mean?”

He looked at me with narrowed eyes.

“That’s impossible. Only two people-”

He was abruptly silent, but continued to look warily at me, his grip still steel-like on my arm.

“Tell me the truth. The truth. How do you know about this?”

I was at a complete loss, stunned at the rapid escalation of events and the unnerving implications of what I had just experienced a few minutes ago in the presence of Bancroft. I half turned, gestured back toward the Jacaranda tree-

“Well, that’s actually the person who told me to-”

And, of course, Bancroft was nowhere to be seen.

Hornsby was wired, adrenalized, his suspicions fully aroused, his hostile incredulity palpable.

“Have you published anything? Are you trying to leak information? Because I promise you, if you are-”

He shook his head.

“You don’t know what you’re doing. Nothing’s been confirmed yet. That transmission could be a false positive. It could be anything. For god’s sake, if you really are a journalist, do the ethical thing, just this once, and keep a lid on this until we know more.”

“Doctor Hornsby,” I said, with as much composure as I could muster. “I can promise you, on the grave of my mother, that I haven’t written anything, I haven’t heard anything beyond what you’ve just said, and that I’m not going to do anything. In fact, I’m going to walk away and hopefully never bother you again.”

I’m not an idiot.

I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I had just been clued into something that I had no right to know. I also knew that it tied directly into what Bancroft was supposedly trying to accomplish, and the thought that his nihilistic fantasies might carry even the slightest bit of credibility was so sickening, so soul-disturbing, that I felt like vomiting onto the lawn as I strode rapidly away from Hornsby, my face hot with embarrassment and bewilderment.

I rounded the corner of the cottage, fully intending to leave the party, along with the whole inexplicable mess of whatever this was. I could give Marguerite a call in the morning, I reasoned, make up some excuse, maybe arrange a conciliatory date or something. The whole episode had just been too bizarre to fathom, and the only rational explanation I could think of was that I had somehow been made the target of an incredibly sophisticated prank.

A little ahead of me, a figure detached itself from the wall, and I seethed at its reappearance.

“How did you even know I’d be coming this way? And what the hell just happened back there?”

My tone, now, was one of genuine anger; I was ready to punch someone in the face for doing this to me. Bancroft, by comparison, was his infuriatingly normal blend of insistent calmness and lunatic clarity.

“I’m glad you’re starting to pay attention. I know you’d prefer to simply leave and never see me again, but that won’t be possible.”

I balled my fists, stared at him.

“Oh? And why is that?”

“Well, for a start, there’s going to be a citywide electricity failure in about two or three minutes, and the gates to the front of the property will be unavoidably locked.”

He chuckled.

“Which means that you quite literally won’t be able to leave. Quite droll, actually. Also, I happen to know what you’re going to do.”

“Listen. If you think this is-”

He gestured abruptly, cutting me short.

“Let us repair to one of the rooms inside. It will be a little more private, and I have only a few minutes left at my disposal.”

Numbly, I followed him - why, I had no idea - and once inside, we made our way through the bustling living room to a quieter space adjacent to the kitchen near the back of the house, a laundry room by the look of it.

“Right,” said Bancroft, almost breezily. “As with all things, the final decisions are always ours to make. And although this course has already been set, you have the capability to alter events as you choose.”

He unslung the leather satchel from around his neck and shoulder, holding it reflectively for a moment before extending his arms, offering it to me.

“I fervently hope and trust that you will follow through in accordance with your nature.”

I backed up, shaking my head.

“Before we even start to have this… discussion, or whatever it’s supposed to be, you need to tell me exactly what your-”

Take it.”

His voice was commanding, tinged with urgency. His gaze flitted downward, toward the satchel.

“Everything you need to know is in there.”

Reluctantly, against my better judgment, against all logic, I reached out and took it from him. It was surprisingly heavy.

Discerning my intent, Bancroft shook his head.

“Do not open it until you are well away, and alone. The reasons will become apparent when you do.”

I cradled the satchel in one arm, rubbing my eyes with my free hand.

“Mr Bancroft… I’ve got to be honest: I’m so out of my depth right now that so don’t know what to believe any more. I just need some time to think about what’s happening here.”

The room was plunged into darkness, along with the entire house. From the next room came calls of exasperation and laughter, a typical reaction to the periodic blackouts caused by outages in South Africa’s erratic power grid. One of the hosts was saying something about lanterns in the hallway cupboard.

A spark, then a flame: Bancroft had produced a lighter from his pocket. His face seemed to soften in the flickering yellow light, the dancing shadow of his silhouette indistinct on the wall behind him.

“I’m off to the water closet,” he said, turning and heading up the passageway leading from the laundry room. I followed him helplessly in the gloom, wondering what he was talking about.

The answer became apparent when he stopped at the door to a guest bathroom and pivoted to face me briefly.

I realized that there was another, very faint, source of light that had manifested itself as he walked: the small, irregular black stones tied around his wrist were giving off an almost imperceptible phosphorescence, a violet glow so nebulous that it only became visible when he briefly extinguished the lighter.

“Yes, they do that,” he said in the darkness, as though he knew where I was looking. “It’s an indicator of imminent resonant alignment. I’ve also been told that it stimulates hemispheric synchronization in the human brain, which is helpful when you’re in transition.”

The lighter flared again, and I saw that he was extending his right hand, his expression oddly tranquil. Reflexively, I reached out in return, and we shook hands.

“If everything proceeds as it should, I shall be seeing you again soon,” he said. “Goodbye, Mr Logan.”

“Uh - goodbye,” I replied, completely confused, attempting a semblance of normality.

I expected him, then, to walk up the passage toward the front section of the house, but he opened the bathroom door instead, slipping inside and closing it behind him.

Part of me knew that it would probably be polite to wait until he was done, and then to bid him farewell properly when he left, but another part of me suspected, contrary to everything I thought I knew, what would actually happen.

Through the door, I heard Bancroft inhale once, deeply, like a free diver about to enter the depths, and then there was silence.

I waited another minute or two before tentatively rapping on the door.

“Mr Bancroft?”

There was no reply, but as if prompted by the sound of my voice, the lights came back on, momentarily dazzling me. Somewhere else in the house, music started up, and there was a muted cheer from outside where most of the guests had congregated on the lawn.

Glasses clinked; laughter and conversation swelled, and two women rounded the corner into the passage, chatting animatedly as they approached the spot where I was standing.

Holding onto the leather satchel as if it were my only grip on reality, I opened the door.

The bathroom, windowless and without any other exit, was empty.


Doctor Hornsby lay on the floor of the container shed, blood trickling from the open wound on his scalp where I had smacked him against a metal stanchion in the heat of our struggle, ten minutes earlier.

I hoped – prayed – that I had not injured him too seriously.

He’d surprised me, surreptitiously entering the sprawling utility shed through another door, taking advantage of the darkness to sneak up on me while I was crouching over the transmitter module and attaching the mounting clamps according to the instructions Bancroft had left me.

Just before I re-entered the building, I glanced up at the night sky that soared majestically overhead. Here, in the cold, arid expanse of the vast and uninhabited semidesert Karoo region of the Northern Cape, the stars were impossibly brilliant, flung against a velvet black canvas, glimmering with ferocious intensity, and partially illuminating the observatory building compound. Farther away, the cluster of dauntingly large radio telescopes were darkly silhouetted against the starlight, each one an enormous, silent sentinel pointing at the sky.

The soft sand underfoot was uneven and gritty, each step kicking up a puff of dust as I moved. I was returning from the nearby processor building where I had, I hoped, accomplished what I had come here to do. On one side of the processor building was an external interface where the insulated bundles of optic fiber coming in from the sixty-four interlinked radio telescopes were located. The transmitter module, one of the items in the satchel Bancroft had given me, had been modified to fit snugly onto the branched cable stem, with the aid of two sturdy clamps.

There was nothing else to do, except to rely on the utterly unfamiliar technology that Bancroft had assured me would work.

As I opened the metal door and stepped inside, Hornsby groaned faintly, his eyes fluttering open, and I glanced across at him. I’d tied his wrists and ankles together with electrical cable offcuts I’d found on a shelf, and he was probably not going to be mobile for quite some time.

He focused on my face and grimaced as I closed the door behind me.

“I don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s senseless,” he said in a ragged voice. “If this is some kind of terror attack, it’s not going to accomplish anything. This is a radio telescope observatory, not a military installation or something like that. I don’t know what it is you hope to accomplish by doing whatever you’re doing.”

I paused, shook my head.

“Doctor Hornsby. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you like that. This is not what you probably think it is… and I’m not a terrorist.”

“Yes, you are,” he said flatly. “You’re clearly trying to sabotage the array. And I can tell you now that it won’t do you any good. No matter what you blow up or destroy, there are two other observatories that are now monitoring-”

He bit his lip.

“Look,” I said, “I’m not trying to destroy anything. I know you won’t believe me and I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise. I’ve done what I needed to do, and I’ve already posted a message for someone to come and help you. I mean you no harm, and after this, you’ll never see me again.”

“The hell I won’t,” he said shortly. “I’ll see you get exactly what’s coming to you. And it’s going to happen, regardless of what you do.”

I looked askance at him.

“And what is it that you think is going to happen to me?”

“You really don’t know?”

“Enlighten me.”

He scowled, wincing at the pain it seemed to cause him.

“Control of our local operations, since the beginning of the month, is no longer vested in the South African authorities. It’s been ceded to the US intelligence services. They’re overseeing this facility now. And I’m estimating that their security contractors, who you managed to bypass – god only knows how - will be here any minute now. They’re not going to try and negotiate with you. I can promise you that. They have standing instructions to shoot intruders on sight.”

I looked at him intently, feeling momentary sympathy for him. I had, after all, just denied him the chance to become the most famous scientific figure in modern human history. Perhaps, as a means of apology, I could attempt to offer him an explanation, if he would hear it.

“Doctor Hornsby,” I said, as gently as I could. “I want to tell you what I’ve done, and why.”

“It won’t help you,” he said.

“I know. But it might help you. And the reason I say that is because I know more about the visitor – about U703 - than you do.”

He stared at me with contempt.

“You? A… reporter?”

I winced. I preferred ‘journalist’ myself. It made me sound marginally less like a tabloid hack.

“Just give me a couple of minutes,” I said, “and maybe you’ll understand. You won’t believe me, but in time, you might.”

He looked at me impassively. I took a deep breath and seated myself on a toolbox.

“Alright. When I approached you last week, I had no idea who you were. Believe me when I say that I had not even heard of you until that moment. Fact is, I’d just met somebody, a man who told me a story that – quite frankly – made me instantly think he was insane. And I’m going to tell you that story, too, as quickly as I can.”

I didn’t mention Bancroft by name. But as I began to relate the details of our first meeting, I could see Hornsby reddening, almost apoplectic with incredulous disbelief. By the time I reached the part about Bancroft’s claim to have somehow travelled from Victorian England to prevent a global catastrophe, he could no longer restrain himself.

“You’re insane!” he shouted. “You’re as mad as he is! How can you even think that there’s anything credible about that? Wake up, man!”

I raised a conciliatory hand.

“I know. I know. And nobody thought he was a stark raving lunatic more than I did. In fact, even after I’d had a chance to go through everything the next day, I was still wondering whether I hadn’t somehow lost my own mind. Believe me. And maybe I am insane. But let me finish.”

I told him about the nature and outworking of the arrival of the craft that he had been tracking – and from which his observatory had been receiving communications signals – and what would happen. At this point, his expression was a blend of utter disbelief, overwritten with a level of blind fury that rendered him almost inarticulate.

Before he could explode again, I rested my elbows on my knees and leaned forward, trying to keep his eyes on me.

“I understand what you’re feeling right now. I felt the same way. And when I tried to make sense of it afterward, I was thinking exactly the same things you’re thinking right now. Maybe… I was being set up by someone to deliberately sabotage a research program or something. Maybe it was part of an elaborate intelligence-gathering operation and I just happened to be a handy stooge. Maybe he was an agent of some kind, acting on behalf of a rogue state or something like that, with a convoluted story and a massively clever setup. A psy-op, with me as the fall guy.”

I shrugged.

“In an extremely far-fetched scenario, maybe there was an extraterrestrial contact that had somehow already taken place, or was about to, and somebody – a government or an intelligence agency – wanted to prevent you, or the Americans, from being the ones to make history. Because quite honestly, all of those are an infinitely more believable hypothesis than a time traveler, right?”

“If I could, I’d shoot you myself,” said Hornsby sullenly. “What the bloody hell have you done?”

“I’ve turned your radio telescope array into a transmitter. The device that I took outside with me-”

I shook my head apologetically.

“Sorry. You didn’t get to see that part. But I’ve attached a device to the array data feed that – if I understand it correctly - shuts down the processor and uploads a signal to the entire field of telescopes. That signal is being transmitted from the radio telescope array to U703 right now.”

Hornsby closed his eyes wearily.

“Bullshit. That’s not even technically feasible. How could you even fall for something so blatantly stupid? You idiot! You’ve been hoodwinked into installing something else. Probably malware to cripple our array.”

“It’s not technically feasible given today’s technology,” I said. “But this is a little more advanced. It’s something that comes from the same place that your tracking target does. It’s a beacon. And the truth is that I can’t explain it to you. I can just tell you what it is.”

He softly bumped his head against the polished concrete floor, his eyes squeezed shut, his expression one of anguish at my obvious madness.

“I want to show you something before I go,” I said, and he paused to look at me, his breath misting the frigid air.

“You’re not going anywhere,” he muttered.

I unslung the satchel and opened it, the leather straps stiff, the brass buckles freezing against my fingers. The object I extracted looked like a brass paperweight in the shape of a pyramid, about the size of a matchbox. I rubbed my finger vigorously against the base for about ten seconds before placing it on the floor a few feet away from him.

An image, slightly grainy but discernible, appeared in the air just above the device, the luminosity startling in contrast to the gloomy surrounds.

I turned the device slightly so that Hornsby could better see the projection. It was a photograph, a screenshot, of a CNN news headline:

Alaskan Coast Oil Spill An ‘Unforgiveable Disaster’, Says Vice President.

Hornsby had gone rigid at the sight of the near-holographic projection.

“What is that? Where did you get it?”

“I think you can guess where I got it,” I replied. “And believe it or not, this little thing was manufactured in 1848, according to one of the notes that, uh, that the individual in question left me. It houses something called a self-illuminating Daguerre refractor crystal. But that’s not the point. See that headline? You probably saw it yourself. That oil spill - which made international headlines - happened on Tuesday last week, two days after we met.”

He stared at me. Hard.

“I know. So?”

“So, this was given to me – in this bag - on the same evening you and I met. Two days before the tanker ran aground.”

He was silent.

I reached out, tipped the small pyramid so that it was standing on another plane, and the image, too, changed. The next picture projected was of another news headline, this time carrying a Reuters banner:

White House Confirms Historic First Contact

Beneath the headline was a photograph of a seemingly enormous cigar-shaped vessel, sharply contrasted against the dazzling blue of the Earth’s curvature and the blackness of space, the picture taken, it seemed, from the vantage point of either a very high-altitude fighter jet or perhaps a rocket that had just breached the Karman line.

I pushed the projector a little closer so that Hornsby could see the picture in more detail.

“Look at the dateline. That’s two weeks from now.”

“You’ve clearly never heard of Photoshop,” he muttered, but I could see he was badly rattled, his eyes flitting between the image of the orbital ship and the odd, featureless little brass artefact.

“It doesn’t need a lens,” I informed him. “And honestly, I have no idea why. I’m also not going to try and make a case for what I’ve just told you. This is just to show you that there’s more to this, whether you believe it or not.”

Hornsby drew his knees up, tried to adjust his position on the hard floor.

“And this supposed transmitter of yours? What do think that’s supposed to be doing?”

“It’s the equivalent of a lighthouse,” I said, borrowing from the terminology Bancroft had used in another one of his copious notes. “It’s a signal that’s understood among… well, a whole number of civilizations out there-”

I glanced up through the high, oblique windows of the warehouse, at the mist of stars beyond the glass.

“-and it means that a planet, or a system, is off limits. Usually, apparently, because an apex species hasn’t yet reached a point of suitable maturity, and there’s a high risk of aggression or self-destruction.”

The silence was overwhelming.

“And there’s a common understanding, a treaty of sorts, that compels any visitor to steer clear. They have no choice. They have to look somewhere else, even if it’s a crisis situation for them.”

I did not tell him about an incidental footnote that Bancroft had added, about a previous, unsanctioned first contact, hundreds of thousands of years ago, that had already caused enormous problems for our little blue planet and its inhabitants.

Hornsby rolled his eyes sarcastically.

“Well, then, I suppose we’ll have to see. Assuming you’re insane, or you’ve been played, then U703 will keep on course regardless of any damage you try to do to the observatory, and we’ll know within a couple of days whether the signals we’ve been getting are legitimate or not. If you’re somehow right – which I completely refuse to accept – then it will change course or stop transmitting, I suppose.”

He shook his head.

“I don’t know why I’m even entertaining this nonsense. And if that’s all the supposed ‘evidence’ you have-”

“Oh, there’s more,” I said. “But… I think time’s about up.”

I opened the satchel flap, peering inside, then scooped up the small pyramid, which I tapped lightly on the floor before putting it away. Against the stillness of the night, I had heard the first faint burring of approaching helicopters, and I knew that I only had a minute or two left before the entire site – and the building we were in – would be swarmed by reaction teams.

I stood, hooking the satchel around my shoulder.

“What about your precious transmitter?” said Hornsby. “Aren’t you going to try and retrieve it?”

He was hoping, obviously, that I would go outside. I shook my head.

“The tech inside the casing is nothing that anyone right now could use or even figure out. It’s a polymer-based gel that uses gravitational waves as a power source. Have at it, if you really want to, when this is all over.”

Outside, erratic fingers of halogen light and the sound of high-pitched engines marked the arrival of multiple vehicles, spinning through the compound gates at high speed. The helicopters were almost overhead now, searchlights piercing the darkness and almost blinding me as one raked across the near high window. I could hear commands being shouted, the crackle of radios.

I smiled at Hornsby.

“Do you have a water closet here?”

He looked at me blankly.

I saluted him – why, I have no idea; it was just a childish reaction triggered by my nascent fear – and turned away, walking briskly toward the makeshift office at the back of the warehouse. It was, quite literally, a steel shipping container that had been repurposed, with one door, a few filing cabinets, and an air conditioning unit.

I entered, shutting the door behind me. The darkness was absolute. I placed my hands on the satchel, my stomach knotting. There comes a point in every person’s life at which a very great leap of faith is required, and despite my longstanding philosophical equanimity about dying, I suddenly did not feel so happy about the idea.

There was, as I had told Hornsby, more evidence, after a fashion: the other images stored on the Daguerre refractor were not newsclips, but no less electrifying.

One image was an aerial photograph of a city, I suspected New York, utterly ruined, the horror of nuclear devastation much worse than I could have imagined or had ever seen in a Hollywood production.

The other image, equally unsettling, had been the clincher: a picture of myself. I was standing next to Bancroft in front of a Baroque-styled building, looking intently into the frame, and holding a handwritten placard.

In my own inimitable scrawl, writ large, was a message:

Remember Vonnegut.

Kurt Vonnegut famously once said: Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. It was my lifelong mantra, my inner guide, and I had never shared it with anyone.

I opened the satchel.

Outside, there was a loud bang, a stun grenade being detonated inside the warehouse, followed by the thud and clatter of boots, a melee of voices, Hornsby somewhere in the mix, screaming: “There! In the office! He’s in the office!”

A shouted command, a split second of reorientation, and then the crack and roar of shots being fired from a dozen or more rifles. Holes appearing in the steel wall of the container, pinpricks of smoky light appearing as if by magic, and bullets smashing into the cabinets behind me, just above where I was crouching on the floor in sheer, blind terror.

I pulled the string of stones from the satchel, dimly aware of the wraithlike phosphorescence sparking from them, and wound them around my left wrist, my heart racing like a triphammer, adrenalin flooding my system and reducing me to helpless jelly.

There was a sensation that could only be compared to sharp vertigo, the faintly visible walls of the container warping, the bullets still wreaking havoc above me, a sudden bright strobe flash that I knew was not part of the assault.

Breathe, dammit. Remember. Breathe!

I inhaled as deeply as I could, and all of a sudden, I was weightless, deep subsonic vibrations passing through my body that both terrified me and shifted me into a state of undreamed-of clarity.

My surroundings were suddenly whipped away, fragmenting into shards of disconnected matter, but I knew – instantly and utterly - that I was the one being whipped away.

One more breath.

And then, as everything dissolved, Bancroft’s voice, alive and present, echoing in my head:

If you perchance should grasp the opportunity, you may come to know very well who we are.

I look forward to welcoming you.



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