Human Intelligence

short fiction

HUMAN INTELLIGENCE

HE FOUND IT ALMOST physically painful to lie, which was unfortunate for someone who had spent most of his life as a spy.

Back when everything was proceeding according to plan, year after year after year, he had gotten a little sloppy, allowing bystanders to see the aircraft in flight, sometimes even announcing to children and their childlike parents who he was and where he lived. What did it matter, back then? Besides, he told himself, his openness created a rapport with the natives. But mainly it relieved his loneliness.

When people asked his occupation, his standard answer for a long time had been “a writer” or “an anthropologist.” But lately, once again, he was responding to such questions with a more dangerous version of the truth. These gestures toward self-revelation felt exciting, like precursors to intimacy. But he never put himself in real jeopardy. In America in the twenty-first century, who was going to be anything but charmed and amused by a well-dressed, well-groomed, intelligent, alert, friendly old Anglo-Saxon-looking gentleman who made a fantastic remark or two? “I’m a spy,” he’d started telling the curious with a smile and a wink, “here on a long-term intelligence-gathering operation. But it’s super-top-secret, so if you don’t mind, that’s really all I can say about it.”

He had looked like an old man even when he was younger because, early on, before he took up the posting, he’d grown a full beard to conceal the purple cross-hatching of surgical scars on his chin and upper neck. Now that he was genuinely elderly, it pleased him that appearance and reality had come into sync. He looked old and, by any standard, he was old. One less lie to live.

Of course, if he told the whole truth, anyone but a lunatic would consider him a lunatic. Then the authorities would be notified, and even in this comparatively enlightened era he would lose his freedom for the rest of his life. The project to which he’d devoted such vast time and effort—dutifully, yes, but with enthusiasm as well—would be for naught.

On the other hand, with the passing years that downside calculus had changed. Incarceration and 24/7 gawking would be unpleasant, no doubt, but the rest of his life was looking like a manageably brief time.

As for aborting the operation, he doubted that anyone at headquarters was any longer aware of him or his mission—if headquarters still existed. Doing his job had become easier and easier over the years, especially with television and the Internet—although, of course, the promiscuous availability of information also tended to make his job moot. Maybe the project was already for naught.

Yet he had continued to adhere to the four main directives of the contingency plan, almost as articles of faith: remain at the last position reported to headquarters, maintain all necessary discretion and secrecy, continue to chronicle the people and their society to whatever extent possible, and await retrieval. “Retrieval” is the closest English translation of the word in the orders, not “rescue,” a bit of stoic bureaucratese he had come to resent ever since the crash. (Had he gone native? Probably.)

So here he was, living in a city now a thousand times larger than when he arrived, chronicling and waiting, chronicling and waiting, chronicling and still waiting.

After he read End Game and Waiting for Godot at the Chicago Public Library one pleasantly frigid afternoon near the end of December 1959, he wrote a long, elusive fan letter to Samuel Beckett in Paris, describing the two plays as “perhaps the most profound works of literature since Shakespeare.”Discovering them, he gushed, had “made this Christmas one of my merriest ever.” In response he received a curt, generic form letter, mimeographed, which struck him as almost funny. Since the stranding, he has not been an outwardly jovial man, but he’s never lost his sense of humor. By nature and by training, he takes the long view.

And so he was more intrigued than anxious when the little light on the remote beacon had, for the first time ever, started flashing. He wasn’t sure exactly when the flashing began, because he kept the device hidden at the back of a high shelf in his bedroom closet. He’d been checking it only once every month or so, grudgingly, feeling like a chump each time he lifted it down, pushed the test button, for the ten thousandth time heard the beep confirming that it worked and the connection was secure—Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking! Nothing Outlasts the Energizer Bunny!—and then, after waiting ten seconds for the flashing signal that never came, put the thing back up on the shelf.

Until the remarkable evening of September 16, 2007, when he first saw the throb of purple light and shouted so loudly that his young downstairs neighbor called up to see if he was all right. According to the contingency-plan instructions, the light on his box could flash in one or more of nine different colors, each color corresponding to a particular alert condition. Purple means that sensors on the exterior of the station, 2,400 miles away, are now exposed to sunlight.

When the station was set up all those years ago, covered by dozens of feet of ice even at the height of summer, its secrecy seemed guaranteed. Nobody else, not Peary or Amundsen or Byrd or free-ranging Inuits, had traveled so far north. But for the last several decades, more of the Arctic ice had been melting each summer—and in 2007 the summer melt radically spiked, turning a third of the polar ice cap into open sea. The top of the station, a 150-foot oval of tubing and tanks suspended just beneath the water’s surface, must be visible. And now there are permanent research stations scattered all over the high Arctic, and surveillance satellites shooting high-resolution pictures of every rod and furlong of the no-longer-trackless wastes.

What was taking them so long to find it? Seasonal ice may still grow back to hide the base in winter, but for each of the last three summers he has waited for the news bulletins (HIGH-TECH “ATLANTIS” FOUND NEAR NORTHPOLE) and the resulting global hysteria. He does worry that the discovery will discombobulate people en masse—the “unforeseeable cultural and ontological impacts,” as headquarters’ boilerplate put it. But he also has a hopeful hunch that a critical, controlling fraction of humanity had matured, and would, after some initial breathlessness, learn to accommodate the new facts.

Selfishly, he’s also eager to see pictures of the station again after all this time, to compare his hazy memories with fresh digital images. And although it felt vaguely insubordinate (to whom?), or even traitorous (to what?), he was excited by the prospect of everyone on earth learning all at once the truth that he alone had known for so long.

AS HER FLIGHT FROM Oslo approaches O’Hare, Nancy Zuckerman thinks once again of the cliché uttered sooner or later by everyone who spends time in Svalbard, including herself: This is what it must be like to live on another planet. NASA actually runs a research station on the other side of the North Pole, in the Canadian Arctic, where they simulate the conditions of a Martian space colony.

She had always liked spending time outdoors, and when she was seven could stick a live worm on a fishing hook and set up a tent herself. But it was the second Indiana Jones sequel, which came out the summer she turned eight, that decided her on becoming an explorer when she grew up. In earlier generations, adults would have smiled at a little girl who said she wanted to be an explorer. But at the turn of the twenty-first century in Boulder, Colorado, adults smiled and patronized little Nancy Zuckerman not because of her gender but because her cute dream job no longer existed.

Fortunately, she was both collegial and self-reliant, a cheerful team player as well as a cheerfully independent loner. “If I could be a superhero,” she used to say, “I’d be totally willing to be like a second-string member of X-Men or the Justice League.” And so science in general and her chosen field in particular—exploration geophysics, specializing in the Arctic—suited her. She hadn’t minded spending the last year and a half on a postdoc in Longyearbyen, a town in the Svalbard islands, northernmost Norway, 1,200 miles up from Oslo and 600 miles below the North Pole. It was and it wasn’t a fortress of solitude. Her fellow researchers and faculty were a cosmopolitan, caffeinated assortment of English speakers from all over the world, chatty good company for the six months of perpetual sunlight. And Einar, a single young coal miner who’d grown up in Svalbard and had no idea how handsome he was, made the six months of subzero darkness tolerable, even though (or maybe because) he spoke very little English. She played squash, she swam in the indoor pool, she took pictures.

She was attached to one team drilling experimental wells to store captured CO2 in a sandstone aquifer, and part of another project testing the feasibility of thickening the polar cap by pumping seawater onto the ice and letting it freeze. Good data had been collected. Techniques had been refined. Reasonable progress had been made. It wasn’t heroic exploration of the kind she’d imagined as a kid, but as she approached thirty she had made her peace with the exigencies of incremental science and the real world.

Or so she had thought until a few weeks ago. She was five days into an excursion aboard the university’s sixty-eight-foot research vessel, the Dauntless, taking a group of new undergraduates on a tour of the southern edge of the ice cap. Around two A.M. on the morning of July 11, unable to sleep, she’d gotten up and taken one of the motorboats out alone to cruise close to the ice, looking for polar bears to photograph. It was warm, 46°F, the sky almost cloudless, and, of course, the sun high in the sky. The sea was calm. Thirty yards from the ice, at the mouth of a recently formed inlet, she cut the motor and let herself drift along, sitting cross-legged on the deck at midships, watching, camera and long lens at the ready. She was exploring. A half hour passed. Some terns flew over, but she saw no seals and no bears.

When she heard and felt the thud, she figured she’d struck a chunk of submerged ice. As she stood to investigate, the boat rocked freely in the water even though it was stuck more or less in place, knocking against some underwater structure to its left and its right. It was as if the boat had slid into a marina slip.

What the fuck?

She started probing underwater with the tip of an oar blade, and a foot and a half beneath the surface found not ice, but what felt like pipe, a big pipe, a pipe with a diameter—she scraped and stroked the hard surface—of several feet. She climbed over to the starboard side to probe some more, and found an apparently identical pipe, running parallel to the other. The distance between them was ten, maybe twelve feet.

Completely bizarre.

A sunken ship? Even the fleeting thought made her feel childish and silly. The water was a mile deep. No way a wreck could float to the surface, and ditto for stray lengths of oil or gas pipeline. Unless, shit, she’d discovered some hitherto unknown shoal or reef in the Arctic Ocean! She had discovered something. More to the point, she had discovered something.

Kneeling on the deck, she started to use the oar as a push pole, levering it against the underwater pipe on the port side to propel the boat back—shove, coast a couple of yards, shove, coast—toward the opening through which she must have drifted.

But then, abruptly, the dinghy stopped moving, caught between the mysterious pipes. The pipes didn’t run parallel, it turned out, but came together at an angle, and she was now wedged near their apex. She stood. The boat barely budged. She tried and failed to pole herself forward. She was stuck fast. Crouching and leaning out next to the raised motor, she stuck the oar into the water directly behind the boat—and found another smooth, hard underwater surface. But this was different, not a pipe but some kind of funnel. She used both hands to plunge the oar straight down into the funnel’s neck.

She gasped as she felt the blade end of the oar being smartly, mechanically grabbed, then slowly pulled into the water another foot. She let go. The oar’s hand grip protruded straight up between waves. She stared down, bewildered.

Then she was shocked beyond belief, and terrified. The ocean beneath the boat and in a long, narrow strip beyond began to churn, forming into a 100-foot-long tubular wave—but the very opposite of a breaking surf, for this wave had depth instead of height, its crest not a peak but a trough ten feet below the water’s surface. She thought of her mother and brothers, of her late father, and of the fact that she wouldn’t get any credit at all for discovering this freakish inverted tsunami before it killed her.

But the boat wasn’t swamped or sucked under, and the upside-down wave, instead of crashing, just kept rolling and rolling. In other words, a ten-foot-wide ditch had formed in the sea, with ten-foot sides of smooth water and a sloshing, foamy bottom. Nancy Zuckerman was sitting in a boat suspended by metal pincers—the two big pipes, now fully exposed—at the top of this perfect, impossible ditch.

As in Exodus 14, the waters of the sea had been divided, the waters being a wall on her right hand and on her left. But even at that supremely dreamlike moment, Nancy Zuckerman’s faith in reason and science was unshaken. Miracles are a function of ignorance, inexplicability a temporary condition. By some mechanical means, a hundred thousand gallons of seawater were being sucked away to form a semicylindrical void. It was amazing, but it was also like one of the rides at Water World, off I-25 in Denver.

She had the presence of mind to push the button on her GPS, and press again to record the reading: longitude 14o 48′ 53″ east, latitude 86o 19′ 27″ north.

And then she was vindicated—although also freshly terrified—when a rubbery blue sleeve rose from the pit beneath the boat and wrapped itself tightly around the hull with a vacuum-packing thrrrooooop. Definitely a machine at work, not God or Satan. As the dinghy started moving smoothly and slowly into the slot in the sea, she considered escape—she might be able to dive out past the edge of the slot and swim away, might make it to the ice and pull herself out of the water before hypothermia set in, might be rescued by searchers from the Dauntless after they discovered her and the dinghy missing. But curiosity kept her in the boat. As the machine moved her down into the mists and darkness, Nancy was careful to notice everything she heard and saw and smelled. She was an explorer.

TWELVE DAYS AGO, HIS beacon—now out of the closet and sitting on the coffee table in the living room—had started alternating a chartreuse throb with each purple one. Chartreuse meant that someone had entered the station. And the station’s mapping console, assuming it still worked, would give the intruders the precise location of the remote beacon. He thought of getting rid of the device, leaving it on the El or heaving it into the Chicago River, to put the hounds off his scent. But then he admitted, once and for all, that he wants to be tracked down. He craves being found.

And so he has gotten all his documents and images in order, the entire chronicle. He has packed a suitcase, and straightened up the apartment. He has been watching cable news and surfing the Web constantly. Surely it is only a matter of time.

But he’s surprised when the front-door buzzer buzzes. He had expected helicopters and floodlights and grappling hooks and special-ops troopers in black visors and haz-mat suits bursting through the doors and windows with automatic weapons and gas canisters, and had even practiced dropping to the floor and putting his hands over his head. The Obamas’ Hyde Park house is ten minutes from his apartment, which he’d figured would make the brouhaha all the more spectacular. As he stands at the intercom speaker, he looks out the window down at Kimbark Avenue: cars driving past, people strolling by and hanging out as on any summer afternoon, no evacuation of the block, no emergency vehicles, no perimeter secured.

The doorbell buzzes again. He wonders if it’s the UPS guy. “Yes?” “Hello?” A woman, sounding tentative. “Yes?”

“I’m looking for someone who, um, also lives at 86 degrees, 19 minutes, 27 seconds north?” He grins, and buzzes her in.

Opening the apartment door, he’s surprised all over again: she’s alone, apparently unarmed, and very young. She extends her right hand.

“I’m Nancy Zuckerman.” “Hello. I’m Nicholas Walker.” “I’m a scientific researcher,” she says. “From the Arctic.” “Really?” He smiles, and motions her inside. “So am I! How very fortunate. For the both of us.”

 

THEY SIT. SHE SETS aside the cardigan he’d handed her, and explains herself in a nervous rush. Why she had been in the Arctic, how she happened to drift over the station and accidentally jimmy the entry system with her oar. How she’d figured, at first, that it must be some military facility, American or Russian or Chinese, but then, as she spent hours exploring the interior—the peculiar materials and shapes and technology interfaces, the very peculiar quality of artificial light, the unrecognizable written language, the images displayed—how she had developed a new hypothesis. How she had photographed everything, including the mapping console with its one, tiny blinking light in the middle of North America, and then, on her computer back in Longyearbyen, had transposed a longitude and latitude grid over her image to find the precise location of the blinking light—41 degrees, 47 minutes, 54.1475 seconds north and 87 degrees, 35 minutes, 41.7095 seconds west, South Kimbark Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets, Chicago. How she had taken a few things from the station—including a small plastic picture of him, which she had just shown to a lady downstairs in order to find his apartment. She hands him the picture.

“My goodness,” he says, “I was young. So young!” He puts the picture down and turns to look at her. They’ve talked for ten minutes, yet she hasn’t asked where he’s from or what he’s doing here. Which is fine by him. He’s in no particular hurry.

She’s a little flummoxed. “I have to tell you I am incredibly excited. This is beyond surreal. It’s like I’m having a stroke, or been drugged, or gone to heaven. It’s—it’s a new category of excitement.” She takes a deep breath. “I’m also scared.”

“Scared? Of me? Oh, don’t be. No, no, no.”

“No, scared that I haven’t told anyone about any of this—not my colleagues, not my bosses, not any government people, not my mom, no one. I don’t know what the rules are, but I sure as shit haven’t followed them.”

How interesting. “Why have you kept it secret?” He knows about keeping secrets.

“Well, I guess possibly I worried that…no, I’ll tell you why. Because I want to be the one who gets to reveal it, to tell the whole story. To be, you know, ‘the discoverer.’ Like Columbus or Magellan or Galileo or Einstein. I’m sorry—do you know who they are?”

He smiles. “Yes.”

“Before the rest of the world finds out and rushes in and pushes me out of the way, I want to learn as much as I can. I want to be the expert.”

He likes this girl. He will give her the gift she wants.

“Oh, Jesus.” She reaches into a bag, searching for her two tape recorders. “May I record our conversation?”

“Of course.” He spots something in the bag. “You found the gold? At the station?”

She blushes, and pulls out a half-pound golden cylinder the size of a lipstick. “You can have it back. I took one, as a research sample.”

He strokes the ingot with one finger. “And you said you saw images at the station?” “Projected on those big spherical monitors in the, like, office.” “To the left and straight back as you entered?”

“Hundreds of pictures on those monitors, 3-D photographs, in color, of huts and houses and towns and farm animals and pots and carts and soldiers and children and temples, it looked like from all over the world, Europe, Asia, Africa—”

He hates to seem smug, which he’s afraid is about to become his default affect, but he can’t suppress a knowing smile, and interrupts her. “I know. I took them.”

“Shot from overhead, mostly, I guess with a very long lens?”

“Intelligence gathering is supposed to be clandestine. And I tried to minimize the Hawthorne elect— people behaving differently when they know they’re being watched.”

“A lot of the images look extremely old. Unbelievably old. Not the pictures, I mean, but the people and buildings and so on.”

“They are.”

She hesitates before asking the next question. “So, you were taking photographs all over the world before…before photography was invented?” This is precisely what she’d hypothesized, that he must be at least two hundred years old. Incredible.

“And moving pictures as well—videos, more or less. From when I arrived until the day the camera was destroyed. By the time the technology existed…indigenously, it seemed pointless for me to start up again.”

“May I ask your age?” This time it’s he who pauses, anticipating her reaction. “The station was established in 429, CE.”

She stares, saying nothing. Her skepticism races to catch up with her astonishment.

He restates his answer, trying to help her register the fact. “I arrived fifteen hundred and eighty-one years ago.”

“You’re sixteen hundred years old?” “Eighteen hundred and seven. Which is fairly ancient even on my planet.”

Finally, she thinks, yes: “on my planet.” It had seemed impossible, but it also seemed like the only plausible explanation. She tries not to hyperventilate. “Where—what planet are you from?”

“We call it”—for an instant his voice slips into an inhuman half hiss, half buzz—“Vrizhongil”—and then back to English with no trace of an accent: “It’s a moon, really, which orbits a large planet. Which orbits our sun, of course. About sixty-two light-years away. Very close by, in the scheme of things. But far enough, it turns out, that it made me expendable.”

Nancy says nothing, and continues to stare. Can this be happening? Can all of this possibly be real?

He had imagined this encounter hundreds of times, thousands, even rehearsed it. “You’re wondering if I’m insane, I expect. Well, there have been moments over the years when I’ve begun wondering that very thing: Am I mad? Is this story—spy from another planet stationed on Earth and abandoned by his superiors, almost two thousand years old, undersea polar base—is this all delusion, some sorry old man’s schizophrenic gibberish? And when I’ve reached those moments of existential crisis, this is one of the things I do, to prove to myself that I’m sane, that I am who I believe I am.”

He picks up a pair of nail scissors from the coffee table and jabs hard into the palm of his right hand. His blood is a kind of Day-Glo orange, and as it drips from his hand onto the table it sizzles and burns the wood like acid.

“Of course,” he says, grabbing a tissue to wipe his hand and the wood, “a skeptic would think this is a trick, some theatrical special elect. But you, Ms. Zuckerman, you have seen the Arctic station. And you found my picture there.”

“Yes.”

“So given the evidence, perhaps I don’t need to perform any further mortifications to establish my bona fides.” He’s smiling. He really does not want to remove his eyes from their sockets, or show her that he has a bifurcated phosphorescent penis and no anus at all.

“I believe you,” she tells him.

He explains that his government established a system to monitor civilizations on planets feasible for Vrizhongilians to reach, and that Earth was one of those 116 designated planets when he embarked on his 83-year-long flight here. The big ship carried four other intelligence agents headed for four other planets in the vicinity, along with their terrestrial stations in prefabricated pieces and individual expeditionary aircraft. A reconnaissance probe was sent to the surface to photograph humans, so that the necessary reconstructive surgery—remodeling ears, removing external neck cartilage, giving his skin a convincingly soft texture and pinkish tint, and so on—could be performed by doctors aboard the mother ship. His station was installed beneath the polar ice. And, voilà, he was on his own.

Sending a message between Earth and Vrizhongil took sixty-two years, so communication was impractical. He spent six weeks each year doing the field work—flying around the world, observing human settlements, taking pictures, making videos, scribbling notes—and the rest of his time organizing and distilling his material.

“Huh,” she says.

“What?” “That’s so much time for assembling and editing.”

“Well, yes. Our productivity problem. You see, we sleep twenty or twenty-one hours a day. It’s the single thing I envy most about you. About people here, I mean.” Eating and digestion, he did not add, were what he found monstrous about humans. No doubt all intelligent species have their horrific and pathetic outliers, the psychopaths and murderers, the self-mutilators and televangelists. But on Earth, every single person chews food and swallows and shits, and it still disgusts him.

Once each century, he says, a mother ship would visit to resupply him and take back home a copy of his meticulous multimedia chronicle of another Earth century. And by the way—every one of his first six chronicles received the highest possible rating from headquarters.

“So your people, back on your planet, were only seeing your reports of life on Earth a hundred years after the fact.”

“Or longer.” “And you wouldn’t hear back from them for another hundred years after that.” He shrugs. “The speed of light is the speed of light.”

At the end of his standard eight hundredth tour of duty, which fell in the thirteenth century, he was to have been replaced by a young agent, and return to Vrizhongil for a headquarters job for another five hundred years before retiring. But no mother ship arrived in 1229. No mother ship ever showed up again. He’s been waiting ever since. And he never retired. The chronicle, he tells her, “is rather absurdly up to date.”

He explains that his people possess, by human standards, an uncanny ability to learn languages, so that during his biannual field expeditions, the northern hemisphere in December and the southern in June, he could move among people incognito. When he was threatened with harm or capture, he protected himself with a weapon, a long wand, which temporarily paralyzed every creature (“except, oddly, marsupials”) within 200 feet. He used the weapon, according to his records, 373 times in 1,442 years.

Quite often, however, when his aircraft hovered for long periods at very low altitudes, people saw it and became alarmed. To demonstrate his peaceful intentions, he would give away tokens, beads and bits of gold.

“The way that poll takers,” he says, a little defensively, “offer small cash payments in exchange for participating in a survey. It was one of our standard protocols.”

“And the station was established in the Arctic,” she asks, “for secrecy’s sake?”

He nods. “Yes, and for my personal comfort as well. Vrizhongil is a cold planet. During these hellish months,” he says, nodding toward the windows, “I give thanks every day for the invention of air- conditioning.” Outside it was almost ninety degrees, but Nancy had put on his sweater. “The region of my birth is considered warm, and temperatures there are the equivalent of Fairbanks. Or were, anyway.”

“But so—why are you here now, in Chicago? Why aren’t you in the Arctic?” “Because it’s my kind of town?” She doesn’t get the joke.

“An accident,” he says. He was wrapping up one of his annual northern field surveys, having just revisited and filmed the large Indian city of Cahokia, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois

rivers. Flying north, back toward the station, he suddenly lost power, and crash-landed in Lake Michigan. He managed to get gold, as well as the paralyzer, video equipment, and portable beacon—he touched the blinking device on the table—into the emergency raft. His aircraft sank.

“Our orders were unequivocal—remain as close as possible to one’s last position and wait for…rescue. Besides, back then I had no means of returning to the Arctic. So I built a home in the woods and coexisted with the natives. Every so often I brandished the paralyzer to reestablish my bona fides.” He smiles. “And I’m afraid I never disabused them of their ‘White God from the Heavens’ idea.”

“But what about, you know, the Europeans, the settlers?”

“They came later. Much later.” He pauses, possibly for dramatic effect. “Three hundred and fifty-six years later. I crashed in February 1317. When the French arrived, fortunately, they ignored the stories the Indians told about me. I was just another supernatural character in one of the savages’ supernatural myths. Fiction.”

“So for food, you hunted and gathered?”

“I don’t eat. As such. My body absorbs nutrients from the air.” This tangent makes him dread that she will ask to use his bathroom. He has no toilet paper.

He tells her about moving into Chicago not long after it was founded, about buying what he needed with pieces of his gold, about working at odd jobs in order to conserve the gold, about losing his video camera and paralyzer in the great fire of 1871, about the difficulty of employment in this era of income taxes and Social Security and government IDs. He has, of course, never sought medical care from a physician, and has kept changing residences so that neighbors don’t get too curious about why he doesn’t seem to age, or die. This is his fourteenth apartment. But except for the years he spent up in Winnetka, from the 1940s through the 1960s, in order to experience suburban life firsthand—“Once an anthropologist, always an anthropologist”—he has lived in Chicago since 1837.

They had talked for more than three hours, and Nicholas had awoken three hours before she arrived. He’s getting drowsy.

“You’ve told me almost nothing about your planet,” she says. “Your people, your history. We have so much to talk about. So much.”

“We do indeed. But if you don’t mind, perhaps we can finish for the day and continue our conversation tomorrow?”

“Oh, yes, of course, yes, absolutely.” But what if he runs away? What if he dies overnight? Then she reassures herself. She had today’s recordings. She’d taken pictures of him. She’d photographed the station, and knows its location exactly. Everything would be okay. She reaches over and touches his shoulder.

“Thank you. This is so extraordinary, I can’t…words really don’t…thank you.”

“I’m pleased, too. Extraordinarily pleased that it was you who made the discovery. I’m very, very lucky.”

“You’re lucky? Well, this is—I mean, I’ve won the lottery to end all lotteries, right? It’s Christmas in July!”

He chuckles, and the chuckle becomes, as he sits back, a full-throttle guffaw.

She’s horrified. Is he about to tell her that this has all been a practical joke, a hoax? That he’s an actor in some incredibly elaborate reality show?

“I’m sorry,” he says finally, still chuckling. “My fatigue has ruined my manners. I’m so sorry.”

“What?”

“There’s another part of the story you need to know. I was going to save it for tomorrow. But now that I’ve upset you, that won’t do.”

He begins by describing his aircraft in more detail than he had before: small, just twenty-six feet long, a large transparent canopy, landing rails instead of wheels, and a thicket of navigational probes extending from the front of the fuselage.

“When the people of the north, the Nordics and the Lapps and the rest, saw me flying, cruising at low altitudes through their midwinter skies nine hundred years ago, eleven hundred years ago, what do you suppose they thought they were seeing?”

Nancy shakes her head. She has no idea what he’s getting at.

“A flying sleigh, driven by a large bearded man who had given them gifts.”

“Oh my God.”

“And a flying sleigh pulled by what? By nothing? Literally unimaginable, so the array of antennae on the nose of the aircraft appeared to them as—what?”

“Oh my God.” “Antlers, on a team of flying reindeer.”

“Oh my God.” She’s had three weeks to get used to the idea that she’d discovered an extraterrestrial base, and that she might actually find a creature from another planet. But this—meeting Santa Claus— is almost too shocking to process.

“When people would ask my name, I gave the one I’d always used, adapted to the local language— Nikolaos, Nikola, Nicholas. And when they asked where I lived, I saw no reason to conceal the truth —‘beyond the mountains of Korvatunturi,’ I told them, ‘near the top of the world.’ Although I don’t believe I ever said, ‘At the North Pole.’”

 

WHEN SHE ARRIVES THE next afternoon, he doesn’t answer the buzzer. Oh, Christ, no. She presses again. As she’s about to press a third time she hears his voice over the speaker.

“Nancy? Very sorry! Come right up.”

Has she ever been so thrilled? He’s still here, still friendly, his windows still improbably frosty. And she sees he has been scanning through his documentary videos. He invites her to sit next to him on the sofa and watch on a small, black spherical device that reminds her of Magic 8-Ball.

“I’m afraid I’ve never figured out a way to hook it up to the television,” he tells her as he touches the Play button.

“Holy Christ, they’ve got sound!” Nancy says, embarrassing herself. “Excuse me. I’m an idiot. Of course they have sound.”

She sees aerial panoramas of Lakota Indians chasing a bison over a cliff in the Sand Hills, junks and gondolas on the Tigris in Baghdad, China’s Great Wall half built. She watches and listens to slightly furtive-looking shots inside a bustling Viking tavern in northern England, men packing a piece of bronze statuary into a crate in eleventh-century Benin, a mock sea battle at the Colosseum in Rome, a smiling toddler in Edo speaking Japanese directly to the camera, a tall beardless man delivering a speech in Chicago in the summer of 1858. “Yes,” he tells her, “Abraham Lincoln.”

She is wonderstruck. She could keep watching forever. But after yesterday she’s more conscious of the time. Before long, he would get sleepy again.

“I want to discuss with you, Nicholas, exactly how you’d like us to proceed.” “We can watch some more of this footage. We can talk. As you wish.”

“I mean longer term. I’ll do whatever you say. If you want, I could take you back up to the station, and you could see if the people on Vreez-honk, Vreez…I’m sorry. You could see if your headquarters has sent any messages to you, there, during the last seven hundred years. And couldn’t you send them a message?”

“And then wait 124 years for a reply? If there’s anyone there to reply.” He shakes his head. If he could cry, he might cry.

She says nothing for a few seconds. “Well, if I have your permission to tell your story to the world—I mean, if you prefer that I wait until after you, after you’re gone to reveal everything, posthumously, I would completely understand. If you want to maintain your privacy, I mean.”

“Thank you. Thank you. But while I am very old, it’s true, I might have another thirty or forty or fifty years left. Vrizhongilians have lived to be two thousand.”

“Good!”

“But I think you would find it a great burden and disappointment to be obliged wait that long, would you not? And when someone else stumbles across the station in the meantime?” He leans forward. “I’m tired of keeping my secret. All right, Nancy? I’m ready.” He’d thought about saying, “All right, Ms. Zuckerman, I’m ready for my close-up,” but figured she probably wouldn’t get it.

She wipes away tears. “I thought I was going to have to convince you.” “You know, my dear, I’ve had more than enough time to consider this.”

He lays out his thinking, his concerns, his plan. The biggest problem, he believes, will be persuading the world that the Arctic station is not some kind of military base, that no invasion of Earth is imminent. Before anything becomes public, he thinks it might make sense to get Rupert Murdoch on board, possibly even offer him some kind of media exclusive, in order to keep Fox News from terrifying Americans unnecessarily. Nancy thinks he’s joking. He assures her he is not.

“Now I know this will sound corny in the extreme. Especially given the ‘Santa’ business. But I believe the best way for us to create goodwill from the outset is to describe what I have in mind as, quote, ‘Gifts to the People of Earth.’”

He will hand over his chronicle—all 2.4 million words he has written and, “far more interesting, I should think,” all 73,496 of hours of video that he shot on every continent but Antarctica in every year from the early fifth century to the late nineteenth century.

He will tell everything he knows about life in our part of the Milky Way, corroborated by the library of text and images stored at the station. “It’s all badly out of date, of course,” he says, “but it’s better than nothing.”

And he will give to the people of Earth his surviving pieces of technology—in particular the batteries that power the video player and portable beacon and Arctic station, all still operating 1,581 years after installation. “I should think,” he says, “that some bright scientists somewhere will be able to reverse- engineer them.”

As she wonders how many billions of dollars his Vrizhongilian batteries might be worth, she feels a jolt of self-loathing. “This is going to be unbelievable, Nicholas.”

He smiles. “Let’s hope not.” “I mean, this will be the biggest thing…ever.”

“I suppose. I do hope that people, anyway most people, will be glad to learn, finally, definitively, that they’re not alone in the universe.” Because, he thinks to himself, I know I am inexpressibly happy that my loneliness is finally about to end.

“Nicholas?” “Yes?” “May I hug you?”