“Cuneiform?” Air Marshall James Garrett of the Royal Australian Air Force bristled as his eyes swept through that roomful of alliance cryptologists. In the end, he just hung his head and muttered. “Why the hell would a technologically advanced civilisation, centuries ahead of our own, store their classified data in cuneiform?”
(This story was first published in the October issue of Antipodean SF, the speculative fiction e-zine. It also appeared April 10, 2022 as a podcast in the Antipodean SF Radio Show.)
Lieutenant Santu, the Basque team leader, stepped forward. “Sir, with up to a thousand logo-syllabic combinations, it appears cuneiform was designed to accommodate multiple unrelated ancient languages from Sumerian to Hittite to Old Persian.” He nodded toward the old man in the dark cassock by the door. “Padre Bernal suggested it.”
“Even Mayan could be encoded in it,” the priest offered. “I have always thought it might have been the original human script, you know, before Babel;” he added, a smile almost crossing his face; but not quite. His eyes again took on a faraway look.
“We can translate it?” Garrett’s eyes fixed on the alien black-box, kept hermetically sealed within a transparent blast shield. With over a hundred coloured cables inserted into every suspected signal port or crevice on its jagged surface, it was the only good thing to come out of the Americans’ preemptive nuclear strike on two of the motherships. We can? The warmth that swept through him at that thought, dropping his blood pressure ten points and setting him momentarily back on his heels, shook him to the core. Hope: He had forgotten what that felt like.
When the surface and underwater vessels of every Navy in the world were destroyed in one fell swoop, he couldn’t fault the survivors who surrendered to the enemy. When every fighter or bomber that approached the hovering motherships plummeted out of the sky as if they had hit an invisible wall, he couldn’t begrudge the orders to retreat. Cruise missile warheads eroded away on approach and shattered harmlessly 200 meters from any alien asset. Railguns rated at 200 km range barely reached 20 km before the projectile crumbled into a cloud of dust. Yes, the human alliance had to fall back, regroup, come up with a new strategy. But not quit!
The nations of the world came together against a common enemy for exactly one month. Then the enemy crushed every ship in the Suez Canal, the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz, the Panama Canal, and Gibraltar, plunging the world economy into chaos. It became every nation for itself. All armies were called back to protect their own borders. So, the aliens parked their thousand ships in the sky, just beyond the range of Earth’s hamstrung weapons, and sent down their emissaries.
“We have already deciphered 50% of the weapon’s system specification.” The end of Lt. Santu’s reply snapped the Air Marshall out of his memories; but the look the priest gave him belayed the onset of a triumphal grin.
“It is not good news,” the priest began.
Before the flash of anger fully materialised on the Air Marshall’s face, Santu cut in. “Padre Bernal taught theoretical Physics for 20 years at the Autonomous University of Madrid.”
The priest went on. “It’s water. Their weapon is water.”
Given enough time, Padre Bernal may have been able to explain the fraction he understood to a panel of Nobel laureates. All he could do here was use analogies. “They create microscopic model systems of macroscopic regions of our planet and then entangle them, couple them together, at the quantum level. Whatever they do to their model, they do to our world.”
Garrett glared. “You are talking voodoo?”
The priest nodded his head slowly, that connection had not occurred to him, yet. “Well, yes, like it. But all they can really control is water.”
“That explains the destruction of our ships,” the Air Marshall paced the floor. “But they could have used tsunamis all over the world to really bring us to our knees. We all saw the freak mountains of water forming out in the oceans, racing toward land, and then falling apart before they could do any damage. What were they doing, toying with us?”
“Our water is different.” That comment silenced Garrett’s rant. “They use clouds of instant hail to foil any projectile fired at them, the refractive index of atmospheric ducts to refract our lasers away. But when they tried making boulder-sized hail rain on our cities, their projectiles dissociated harmlessly into snow. They don’t have full control.”
“Without weapons to destroy us…” Garrett understood.
“They are counting on us to do the job for them.”
“The emissaries.” Air Marshall Garrett’s hope had died the day he saw the news reports from all over the world. The aliens looked like perfect human specimens, sauntering inland from the beaches of the world, saying nothing but causing agonising pain at the flick of a finger. “They describe the effect as being irradiated with full force microwave riot control at point blank range.”
“We are 60 percent water, our lungs over 80 percent,” the Padre nodded in agreement. “Painful, yes. Not enough to kill but only one way to stop it.”
That scene, repeated over and over worldwide, was etched in Garrett’s memory: Kneel before them, kiss the offered hand, and receive a shielding IFF chip on your forehead. By the time the aliens left a city, those who had bowed to them realised their chips did more than protect them, they retransmitted the aliens’ power. They had license to do as they pleased.
“Five months of anarchy, five months of carnage, human against human… Why? What do they want?”
“To take their planet back.” Padre Bernal’s answer sank to the pit of the veteran’s stomach. “You’ve heard of Atlantis. Snippets of the story are recorded in the Bible as the fate of Rahab the proud, the antediluvian empire the Lord himself wiped out.”
“You mean the Flood?”
“That story is recorded by civilisations all over the world. An entire continent was sunk. It appears some of them escaped to the stars.”
“And they are back for vengeance.” There was some comfort in knowing the enemy’s motivation, but Garrett couldn’t turn that into hope.
The priest went on: “They chose their weapon in irony but the joke is on them. The properties of water in our world were changed after the Flood.”
Garrett scratched his head as memories of childhood and Sunday School came rushing forward. “The rainbow?”
“As long as there is a rainbow, our world cannot be destroyed, certainly not by water.” Padre Bernal assented.
The way he paused meant there was more, but the expression on his face also told the Air Marshall that whatever he was about to offer was beyond desperate. “You have a proposal.”
“Yes. I want to tell them.”
He stared at the priest’s forehead; but he knew there was no IFF chip there; and he could see no trace of insanity in his eyes. “Why?”
“All it would take is a slight change of the angle between the OH bonds of the water molecule. If they modify their model system accordingly, with all their ships hovering all over the world, just below the ionosphere, they should be able to force that change on all water on Earth; eliminating the rainbow.”
Garrett scanned the room in disbelief. Padre Bernal took his pocket Bible out of his cassock and held it up. “They haven’t read the story. And they won’t.”
“They are bent on precipitating the apocalypse,” the priest stretched his arm and held the small book at the Air Marshall’s eye level, opened to a highlighted passage. “Maybe they should.”
Beyond desperate didn’t quite do it justice.
Air Marshall James Garrett, remaining senior military officer of the Australian Defence Force, hadn’t received any reply from the Prime Minister or the Governor General in over two weeks. They were too busy trying to keep the country from being torn apart by the advance of the alien secession movement. Without the other members of the alliance, and with the survival of humanity in the balance, there really was no other choice he could make.
He had an armored platoon deliver the priest to the nearest alien sympathisers’ enclave, with instructions not to engage the traitors, only to defend themselves if necessary. The soldiers retreated to the edge of the city block and watched as an alien shuttle landed; and two perfect aliens emerged to escort the priest to the ship. Then they waited.
A week later, Padre Bernal was returned: his face swollen, the skin of his arms and torso mottled with deep bruising, but no IFF chip on his forehead. To the look in Air Marshall Garrett’s face, all the priest said was, “They were a little hard to convince.”
Eight hours later, the whole world came to a standstill. What could only be described as a plague of the bends incapacitated every human being. It turns out, less than 8 milliradians deviation in the angle between OH bonds in the water molecule has dire consequences on the chemical reactivity of the universal solvent.
Sustained by stimulant and pain killer cocktails, Air Marshall Garrett’s team reactivated the Defence communication lines. LEO satellite imagery confirmed the beginning of the end. Columns of water, over a kilometer in height, sprouted out of every sea and ocean in the world. But just as the barrage of mega-tsunamis was about to be unleashed, a streak of blinding light sliced the sky in two, from east to west, horizon to horizon.
Where daylight had been, the blue sky was cleaved by a swath of utter darkness surrounding an impossibly bright sun. Where night had been, the wound appeared as a slice of the deepest star-filled night ever seen. And then the edges of those discontinuities curled upon themselves and unfurled violently, northwards and southwards, dragging within their roiling shock fronts the alien armada, crushing them into twin singularities above the north and south poles.
As the unearthly roar subsided, Padre Bernal’s voice could finally be heard, reading once again the passage from the prophet Isaiah: “And all the host of the heavens shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll; and all their host shall fade away…”
The Air Marshall finally breathed. “The bends are gone.”
“Water must be back to normal,” the priest replied. He waved at two of the screens, one showing the coast of Perth, the other a view off west India. Rainbows lingered on walls of mist left behind by the collapsing mountains of water.
Lt. Santu brought a print-out from the radio centre and handed it to his commanding officer. “Scientists from around the world are weighing in. They say the aliens’ distortion of water destabilised the stratosphere, inducing a large-scale cavitation catastrophe.”
“Indeed.” Air Marshall James Garrett shook his head and gave his final command of the day. “Lieutenant, dismantle the team. Tell all our forces to stand down; return to base. The government will want to give the secession movement a chance to fizzle down before taking action.” Then, he turned to the priest and asked, “How did you know it would not be the end?”
The priest finally smiled. “I am pretty sure we’ve always had the right to choose our own apocalypse.”