View from the Fifth Floor
by Ken Gerber and Brian Hirt
It hovers just outside my window. Grim. Looming in charcoal. It evokes the angel of death, but it’s something more perverse: a spectator, at least at first, at my coming demise. And then...
Are you well? it asks, not aloud but in its uniquely alien manner. This creature has traveled the gulf of space, it seems, to ask me how I am. It has asked every day since its arrival, for several weeks now.
My watcher, my own alien.
I suspect there were billions of these creatures on earth when they arrived. In the first days I could see thousands creeping in the streets and in the sky from the lab on the fifth floor. One for every soul in Iowa City alone? One for every soul on earth, then. There are fewer of them now. Just as there are fewer of us.
I know almost nothing about the creature. I have asked where it’s from. What it’s doing here. I’ve even asked its name. But it has never answered a question. That’s not how our conversations work.
My observations afford little more in the way of information. A mix of fear and revulsion keeps me from getting too close a look. Yet my scientific interest... I can’t quite look away either.
Are you well? it had asked.
“I’m fine,” I finally answer, quietly but audibly.
That’s our daily conversation at sunset. Its one question, my one answer. All others queries on my part always fail to evoke a response.
And today my one answer is not even true.
I’m hot, yes, but I’m no stranger to stifling August days in the Midwest, even indoors with the windows closed.
And I’m hungry. The vending machines have long stood empty, and the bulk sucrose standard in the chem closet is a thin meal. But there’s plenty.
The thirst, though.
I’m out of water, and I don’t dare try the faucet. My urine has gone dark. I know too well what’s happening to my kidneys, my other vital organs. I won’t last too much longer.
And I’ll have a decision to make. Should I let dehydration claim me? Or do I leave this fortress, relieve my thirst in the Iowa River, and expose myself to the same danger that has fallen upon most, maybe all, of my species?
The virus. The plague.
My window faces east, so I can’t see the setting sun or the river. But I never miss dawn. Morning reveals the flat, distant expanse, the wet checkerboard of green and yellow. Just as it should be, untouched by the plague. The sweeping view keeps the claustrophobia at bay and wards off things yet worse. I can get lost in the horizon, and let myself push away for another day that everyone I know and hold dear--mom, sissy, everyone--is certainly gone.
The alien, strangely compliant with my morning ritual, is always farthest away in the mornings too, usually well beyond the lawn and across the street, often obscured in the long shadows of dawn. I know exactly where to find it if I care to: five stories up, a straight line out my window.
But this morning the temporary reprieve of my view was spoiled. A streak of smoke rose from a rooftop vent, an ugly black slash through the expanse. Seashore Hall, the sociology building down Jefferson Street, had a new fire. Inexplicable.
Today, as always, the alien inched its way back by dusk. It is never more than a stone’s throw from the glass at sundown.
As the last dim rays of daytime disappear, it occurs to me that this is the first day since I sealed myself in this lab that I haven’t seen a single alien stirring outside--aside from my watcher. I haven’t seen a human in the streets in a long time. But now the city appears empty of aliens too. This occupation, this invigilation--is it drawing to an end?
With my back against a lab bench and my knees almost to my chin, I look toward the window. It’s full dark now. And even though I don’t see the watcher, I know it’s there.
You are not fine, the alien says to my surprise.
It is, of course, correct.
And we are to have a longer conversation tonight after all. Our last, perhaps.
“Where is everyone?” I ask.
Who? it answers.
“All of the aliens who came here? They are no longer outside.”
We are still on your planet.
“But not outside this building. I don’t see anyone.”
Yes, we are still on your planet.
Frustrating, but I don’t sense reluctance or obfuscation. Considering the gap between us--an absolute and disjoint rift in knowledge, physiology, and culture--it’s a small miracle we can communicate at all.
I summon my scientist’s patience.
“You’ve been here for almost a hundred of our days. Why didn’t you come before then?”
We came when the human race was dying.
“No, you came before the human race started dying.”
To us, that is the same.
I find it almost impossible to believe my own memories of that brief interlude, those few heady days of captivated, nervous excitement when our world was awash with aliens. We knew nothing of the imminent plague.
Then, not long after their arrival, the aliens broke their silence. They asked the first of us, simply, whether we were well.
As our race started dying, our attention turned elsewhere.
I know I didn’t make any conscious decision to retreat to the lab. I was here so often, I just happened to be here when the reality of this plague, its devastating scope, hit me at last. That morning Iowa deaths numbered in the hundreds. By mid-afternoon, the thousands. I remember locking the doors to the hall, sealing the windows, the vents, even as I knew next to nothing about how the virus might spread, whether I’d be safe at all.
By sundown I had acquired my own watcher.
I take another approach. “But why didn’t you come when the dodos or the elephants were dying?”
There is a pause. I don’t know how the alien understands me, but it seems to interpret my impressions attached to the words. Admittedly my impressions of a dodo are vague. A monochrome sketch in a textbook. An amalgam of birds from glossy color prints in other texts.
Those species were not sufficiently large in number. And just as I’m about to ask about the extinction of wasps, the alien preemptively adds, ...or sufficiently sentient.
This talk of extinction summons unwanted images of humanity’s final crisis. The virus. The cycle between first symptoms and death is quick: three to four days. But long enough that most people died in hospitals, at first, and then at least in the dignity and comfort of their homes.
But some died outside, on the sidewalks, in the street below me. And in those cases, I witnessed what I would dearly like to forget: the feeding. I had known about it. Long before I was truly cut off from the world in my fifth floor bunker--when there was still electricity and communication--I had heard all about the aliens and their feedings. After every human death. Every time.
I bite back my nausea of the thought.
But I must ask anyway. “Do you only eat sentient creatures?”
“But a moment ago you said you only traveled through space to witness the death of ‘sufficiently sentient’ species. You didn’t come here when the wasps disappeared.”
“Can you explain?”
I sigh in frustration once more. “Please explain.”
We can sense the death of a species. Before it happens. From across space. Humans emitted a strong signal. Many deaths: strong signal. A highly sentient species: strong signal.
“So, you didn’t come to Earth when the wasps died, because you didn’t sense it?”
I imagine it conjuring an image of those wasps. Correct, it finally says.
“Our death was unavoidable? You couldn’t help us... or you didn’t want to help us?”
Unavoidable. We cannot prevent the unavoidable.
This is difficult for me to accept. The aliens have shown no capacity for trickery or deceit, but how could this massive death be unavoidable? An earthbound meteor I could understand. But this plague? Even our homegrown science--medieval by alien standards--might have found a cure or a vaccine for the virus given enough time. Maybe.
“Do you ever get sick?”
No. Not like you.
“Do you know what I mean by the word ‘scientist’?”
“Do your scientists study diseases or medicine?”
There is another delay, so I think I know the answer. I might as well have asked a zoologist if they studied unicorns. That is not in the purview of science. And now I understand why they could not prevent the plague. They must have no knowledge of medicine--least of all terrestrial epidemiology.
My mind goes to a strange place.
What if a species on another planet were--like humans--facing its own extinction. But unlike humans, this species had a real chance at salvation: the aliens. I know now that it wouldn’t be a plague exactly, but suppose it were an approaching chemical threat. Something the aliens had the technology to fix. A circular logic creeps in.
“Would you save us if you could?”
That question is meaningless. If we could save you, we would not be here to save you. Somehow, almost humorously, it has affirmed my question, and revealed another rift in our line of thinking.
This is much more talking than I’ve done in a long time. My mouth is sandpaper. I feel the clock ticking. The real angel of death suddenly feels more foreboding than this alien caricature. My fear has taken a new tenor.
I rise from the floor, my back wrenched. I know what I look like, what I have become, beneath this undershirt and these slacks. My steps are slow but sure, weakened by emaciation but not by fear of the alien. It’s a strange time of day to finally do this. Only the moon provides any light at all.
Passing another lab bench, I fish out a flashlight. What’s left of the batteries I won’t need much longer. I approach the window and point my flashlight.
The dim bulb throws a dancing light across the watcher’s dark shape, several feet away from the pane now. This alien is taller than me. Taller than most humans I think. Its movements are slight.
“Are you going to eat me?”
My species will only eat you if you die.
“Are you going to eat me?” This time I imbue the word “you” with a mental impression of my singular watcher.
It is decided.
“Would you please come closer? I want to see you.” I find myself asking in self-surprise.
The alien obliges. It floats to the glass lazily. I know it can move more quickly--I have seen them at full speed in the streets below. Is this an act of kindness? An effort to not frighten me?
Its face is close, horrifying only in the abstract. My flashlight reveals a row of bulbous shapes on the head--the eyes, I think, but they never open. The nose/mouth is almost avian, and for the first time I see the texture, like the skin of a snake. I fight the urge to imagine this specimen, this particular alien, this watcher... feeding. But that mouth is too close, too real. And the thought invades my mind.
“Why do you eat us?” I finally ask, my stomach tightening. “We can’t possibly be the best source of food for you? It’s a long way to travel for a substandard meal.”
You are not food.
“But I’ve seen, outside...” I protest. For many horrible days. I point to the street.
We eat humans, but you are not food. We eat because...
A pause, forever. Then:
...we must. It is our purpose.
Droplets of the alien’s breath glisten in the beam of the flashlight.
I have known since almost the start that the aliens were not the bringers of death. No, this extinction event was entirely self-inflicted. The early rumors were certainly filled with half-truths and whole-falsehoods, but every colleague I spoke to had the same instincts. Through accident or design, this is ours.
And if the aliens weren’t instruments of death, apparently they are not eaters of carrion either. They didn’t come to pick our billions of bodies clean.
They are pallbearers, mourners.
For weeks I have contemplated what I might do if I acquired the virus. The thought of one of these aliens crouching over me and digging and pulling at my insides with that grotesque snout was too much to bear. I have filled many disquieted hours trying to devise a suicide that would leave my body too thoroughly ruined to eat. And that leads to another realization. A chill climbs my neck as I realize what might explain today’s fire on Jefferson Street. Has another survivor taken that exit?
I ask, “Are there other humans still alive?”
As I had assumed. But still.
I don’t know.
Of course not. Taken literally, I have asked for an exact count. “Are there others humans nearby?”
“Within the city limits. Within ten kilo..., hmm...” I struggle to ask the easiest of questions, and my frustration starts to simmer.
I know what “kilometer” is. Yes, there are others within ten kilometers. It paused again, I assume, to think. Twelve within that distance.
I make a quick calculation. A dozen in Iowa City means thousands--perhaps a million--worldwide, right?
“Where are they?”
Frames of reference are difficult to communicate. Ten like you in buildings. Two survivors live outside, adjacent to the water.
“Outside?” I look down in stupid instinct. It’s nighttime, and the river is the other direction. “Are they immune?”
How? “Am I immune?”
I don’t know.
“What is the likelihood?”
I don’t know.
“Then what is the likelihood that I have been exposed to the disease killing my species?” My sealed off windows and doors. My closed water pipes. Had the effort been worth it?
Immunity. It didn’t make sense. “But... isn’t our extinction unavoidable?”
Mass death of your species is the signal. Unavoidable. Small number of survivors is not part of signal.
“Survivors? But the existence of survivors must imply that a race is not extinct.”
A few specimens may live on, even for a dead species.
One dry hiccup of a laugh escapes my throat.
That’s how the alien sees it.
The “almost-miracle” of our communication is revealed at last. Yes, we’re exchanging words. Information. Concepts even. But our assumptions are so divergent, our points of view so mutually askew... Yes, we communicate but we don’t understand. Not in the ways that matter.
The alien and its kind came to bear witness to the end of humanity.
I can’t stop them. But apparently my participation--my death--is not strictly required either.
I turn my back on the creature, its presence diminished to an afterthought as a milky glint captures my full attention. The moon has caught the chrome of a water spigot on the nearest lab bench, a beacon in the gloom. I reach and greedily turn the handle. Nothing.
I return to the window. “If I walk out of here, could you take me to the other survivors?”
“Would you please? The ones by the river.” Not waiting for an answer, I unseal the window, pulling coils of plastic tubing from the gaps around the sill. I open the latch, and raise the glass.
The alien enters, fluidly, through a fairly small opening. It passes me, as it glides to the door. The hallway beyond it is dark.
I am only fleetingly bothered by my long folly--the naïve notion that my safety measures were protecting me, rather than the dumb luck--maybe--of immunity.
My steps are weak, and I grimace at the thought of the stairs, but I know that water and sweet relief will not be far off.
My alien shadow may yet have its way and attach some purpose to my death, whenever that comes, and whatever that means to it. But I suspect not before tomorrow.
I enter the dark hallway, already picturing not just another sunrise, but a long summer day and a spectacular August sunset on the Iowa River.
"Well at least there were aliens," Maya said, stroking the cat, who purrs.
"And they didn't all die," he says. "But how awful, having no water."
Maya looks up at the high windows, where the sun is chasing through clouds. "It seems like ages since I've been outside. Though it's just been a few days, really. It seems like longer."
"Do you want to go home?" he asks.
"No." She clutches the cat, who makes a faint mew of protest. "I never want to go home. But especially I don't now, not just being shut up with them but to have them ask me where I've been? It would be terrible. No. I want to stay here and read. What's next?"
"How about Ruthanna Emrys's Roc, Peacock, Sparrow?" he suggests, turning over the books on the pile.
"Is she the one who wrote the Litany of Earth books, Wintertide and Deep Roots, the ones that kind of turn Cthulhu inside out?"
He laughs. "Not literally. But yes."
"Then it will probably have food," Maya says.
And they read.