There are countless ways that an extraterrestrial encounter could be life-changing, but I don’t think it’s all about apocalyptic chaos. I wrote this short story to explore one way that meeting aliens could change how we perceive ourselves, and what it means to be human. Because when it comes down to it, a story about aliens isn’t really about aliens, is it?
It was four feet tall and rather plump. It had dull grey skin, though its big bald head shone with the reflection of the kitchen lights. And when I say big head, that head was massive enough to put the proportions of a Funko Pop figure to shame. Yet the most frightening part was that it was standing in my apartment, rummaging through my cabinet, humming to itself.
I watched for a few seconds as its tentacle “fingers” wrapped around my favourite mug, as it padded over to my coffee machine. I must have been in its periphery, because it turned and gnashed its teeth at me in greeting. “Good morning!”
I sucked in a breath. Held eye contact. Shrieked.
I didn’t realize that people could actually faint from shock until I woke up lying on the sofa, that thing hovering over me.
“Hey, you okay?” Its wide eyes were almost human, which disturbed me more than anything else.
“What is happening? What are you?” I aimed for an interrogative tone, but fell flat when my voice quavered. I nearly tripped over my feet in my haste to stand up and put some distance between me and it.
The thing sighed, an achingly human sound, before saying, “Technical difficulty. Just give me twenty minutes and everything will be back to normal.”
Its casual tone grated on my nerves. “What does that even mean?” The question came out more curious than intended.
It narrowed its eyes for a moment, but answered, “Look, it’s not like you have the knowledge to understand our tech yet. But imagine I have a sort of screen around me 24/7. A little intricate optics, and you’ll see whatever I want you to see, which in this case is a human body. My device is malfunctioning, so I need to head out to replace a couple parts, recharge the battery.”
With that, it stepped past me and made for the front door. I blurted out, “Wait! Stay and answer my questions!” While it didn’t seem to mean any harm, there was the small matter of it having broken into my home. And obviously, the not being human part. It stopped in its tracks, but didn’t look back.
“Hmm, no thanks.”
I pressed on. “Why are you here? And are you…” I couldn’t possibly finish such a ridiculous question, but then it turned to face me, its strange face all too knowing.
“The a-word, you mean? Well, you’re not wrong, although ‘extraterrestrial’ would be more correct.”
I took a deep breath. “O-kay. Let’s sit back down for this.”
I spent several minutes relentlessly badgering the alien. It explained that no, Earth was not on the cusp of an invasion, because its species—its people?—had landed quite a while ago. Their home planet was fine, they were just seeking new territory.
“We did come in peace. Earth was a precious colony for us.”
“Right. How long ago are we talking?”
“As of last month, 5482 years.” They had spent millennia under disguise, in anticipation of hostility from humans.
I interjected, “You’ve had such advanced technology all this time?”
The alien’s mouth widened into some semblance of a smirk. “Aw. Tough pill to swallow, that humans aren’t the most intelligent or innovative.” There was an edge to its tone that I couldn’t quite place. Smugness? Disdain?
“I don’t think that’s fair. You guys are more advanced because you have been around longer, but we’ll catch up eventually.” It just laughed. Not in mockery, but worse: sincere amusement. “Please. You think you’ve accomplished anything on your own? It has always been us planting the ideas in your heads.”
I sat unmoving, struggling to process the audacious claim, swallowing the urge to protest, to defend humanity, to defend my identity.
The alien continued, “You can’t possibly think that humans invented irrigation. Writing systems. The printing press. The steam engine. Meanwhile, the foreign species capable of travelling through space and assimilating seamlessly into your culture had nothing to do with any of it.”
As I sat there, stubbornly silent, I knew it would be futile to deny everything. There may not have been evidence, but it wasn’t difficult to reason out. The creature in front of me was vaguely humanoid, but resembled no mammal, or any other animal class for that matter. It was at least as intelligent as one of us, and surely it should not have been able to live on land without our awareness. That suggested that this species had an effective method of blending in, which tracked with the claim of advanced technology. Technology that they must have had before us, given that our various space agencies would have detected a recent landing…
After a few minutes, I asked, “Why deign to teach us, if we’re so far beneath you?”
The alien’s gaze turned pensive. “Generations ago, the sentiment was that you were entertaining. Like teaching a dog to do tricks. Nowadays, I think a lot of us wonder if our relationship will become mutually beneficial.”
I missed the last sentence altogether. Dogs, they thought we were their dogs. My patience was reaching its end. “So, this has been enlightening, but I seem to recall you were leaving. I won’t keep you any longer.”
The alien snorted and said, “You still haven’t figured out who I am. And here you are, implying that I underestimate you.”
Anger simmered in the pit of my stomach. “Surprise, I couldn’t care less who you pretend to be. I’m sure you’re more than capable of showing yourself out.”
It stood and looked down at me, which might have been intimidating if it was taller than a third-grader. “I will return after I make the repairs and look human once more. But don’t worry, it will be like this never happened.”
That was the second time it had alluded to everything “returning to normal.” A frisson of fear went through me. “What does that mean?”
It just shook its head as it moved away. “We have more advanced psychology theories as well. This isn’t the first time we’ve been sighted. Let’s just say your subconscious—oh, why bother.” It was almost at the door by then.
“You know what, go ahead. Erase this memory. I don’t want to remember meeting you.”
It opened the door. “Fine.”
The door slammed shut.
Wanting to slam something of my own, I marched down the hallway to my room. Realization struck once I passed another door along the way. I stopped mid-step. All the pieces came together. Returning to normal. My favourite mug.
Oh. My roommate.
My knee jerk reaction was disgust. We’d been sharing the apartment for almost a year. We hadn’t gotten along perfectly, but I had come to see my roommate as a friend. We made each other coffee, for goodness’ sake. Now the truth was out. I wanted to say that this explained a lot, but my roommate had seemed as unremarkably normal as they came.
A dog barked in the distance, probably from the park across the street. I walked over to the window to look. I loved dogs, although right now they were an unsavoury reminder. Sure enough, a dog and its owner were playing frisbee in the park. They looked happy.
Out of nowhere, I wondered what it would be like, chatting with a dog. How a dog would react if I happened to mention how humans had made them nothing more than pets. I considered how I, a self-proclaimed dog lover, took offense at being compared to one. My extraterrestrial roommate may have been unbearably condescending, but that had only felt new because I was on the receiving end. Because as a human, I was used to being at the top of the hierarchy. And I wondered whether I could justify my earlier self-righteousness.
I plodded over to the kitchen and pressed my lips together at the sight of my favourite mug on the counter. It had seemed so odd earlier, my roommate clutching that mug, yet that was one of the most normal aspects of our routine. I grabbed my roommate’s mug which, I noted, was still in the cabinet. I made two coffees.
Just as I took my first sip, I heard a key in the lock. I grabbed the second mug and hurried to the door. When it swung open, I held out the coffee. “Please don’t erase anything.”