I was staying up late on the night before religion died. Since the accident, I had been doing a lot of drinking, and there was a half-full glass of bourbon with me on the couch. I had a book in my other hand—Kant—and my feet were up, resting unevenly on the cushions.
Across the room from me, the TV turned on. The gravelly scratch of inter-channel static filled my apartment, and I wondered briefly if I had somehow shifted onto the remote. Moving my body was difficult and awkward, so I lay still and tried my best to tune it out.
With a sound like a system booting up, the television picture changed. A businessman in a tasteful suit coughed quietly, adjusted his tie, and looked back at me from the set.
"I do hope we haven't made any of you uncomfortable. Demographical research, corroborated by your internet, appears to indicate that this is the form you will respond most pleasantly to. Which is fortunate, because we really do look like this."
It was either a commercial or a prank, I decided. It had my attention now, but only until I got over there and switched it off. Slinging my feet over the edge of the couch, I climbed into my chair and began to wheel my way across the rug.
That was when something roared by overhead, passing so close to the roof of the apartment complex that it made my furniture shake. Disquieted, I made my way to the window and looked out into the dark. There was nothing unusual on the other side of the pane. When I turned back to the TV, the business man looked like he had been waiting patiently for me.
"Once again, I apologize for any inconvenience our arrival may have caused. Governments of China, Iran, Israel, and the United States of America, we are flattered that you replied to our messages so many times, but we regret to inform you that we have no interest in raining down death upon your enemies. We will try to make our stay as brief as possible. Once we have what we came for, we will depart."
It had been a few minutes, and still there was no hint of a product. There was no channel marker in the lower right corner of the screen. The newscaster's desk that the businessman sat behind was simple and unadorned.
I knocked back my drink, suddenly feeling lonely and twice my age. Any minute now, this was going to turn out to be a hook for a new detergent or a summer movie, but I could feel myself wanting it to be real—if only for the validation.
"Are you actually out there?" I asked the set. "I don't think I'm the kind of person you would be talking to if you were."
The man smiled in an old and forgiving sort of way. "For the two billion, seven hundred thousand, five hundred and twenty six people who just asked in a wonderfully diverse smattering of idioms if we were talking directly to them...no. You are, as a whole, quite special, but it would be too expensive to communicate with you all individually. We hope that you are not offended."
I frowned at the screen. His timing had been a little too exact. There were long pauses between his words, artificial lags in his speech, but this had been exceptionally precise. The television had my undivided attention now.
"Can you actually hear me?"
"We can, although that's beside the point."
Outside, the lights in the neighborhood were beginning to die away. Streetlamps switched into their lowest conservation modes as windows were shut and blinds were drawn. I felt like the universe was contracting around me.
"We are here to collect on an investment." The businessman smiled, the way a nurse does before the needle's sting. "When we planted your people so long ago, it was with a very specific purpose. We've seen the universe; every boring, dusty, radioactive inch of it. We know where it's headed, too. Collapse and expansion. Expansion and collapse. We will live a very, very long time, but random chance will get us all eventually in the end. We know this in the very marrow of our bones."
I looked down at my legs; at the waste some careless boy in a vehicle had made of them. It still hurt that he had been thrown clear of the wreckage, wholly unharmed.
"You, on the other hand, always seem to think you'll find a way out. You'll dodge this tiger and survive that war, and poof! You'll somehow come out immortal."
I had survived, and in the end that had been what made me stronger after the sirens and lights and doctors were done. It was vibrant and irrational. I had looked death in the eyes, and he had been the one who blinked first. Even on the worst days, that was a comfort.
"You have the capacity to believe. We seeded your soil with myths and impossibilities, and even now—even as I am telling you this—most of you are thinking that I am wrong. That we missed something. That miracles do happen, and that there's life on the other side of when your molecules drift apart. You are so beautifully full of fiction. You give your children Santa Claus, an entity that you know to be fake, and help them to practice their faith."
Three rosaries had broken in my hands since the accident. I had been squeezing the beads so hard that their strings had snapped. Every time I ruined one, I would go back out and get another. It was either that or surrender.
"We are sick of our objectivity, and so we will be harvesting your capacity for belief. Consider it a favor. Your imaginations have not served you well. Your wars are fought over dreams and ideologies instead of practical reasons like insufficiency. Every one of you thinks, secretly, that he can climb on top of the heap—and that it is better there."
I still retained my teaching position, and it was a blessing. Lecture halls would fill before me with bright, able-bodied students, and I would challenge myself not to feel envy when I saw them. Not to give in to regret.
They were the whetstone on which I honed my focus, and I had written several papers with their unknowing help. I would never climb mountains, but at least I had this.
"In return for your hope, we will give you practicality. You have the ability to feed every member of your species, and yet you do not exercise it. That will change. There are members of your kind lying helpless in hospital beds, playing prisoner to their traumas. We will show you how to restore them to life. You have the ability to unpollute your world, to recover from your ambition, and we will enable you to use it." The businessman folded his hands and looked me square in the eyes. "But tell me, do you want this?"
I couldn't respond.
"It will take us some time to prepare for the extraction." He glanced off-screen, asked something inaudible, and then turned back to me. "You will have a full solar rotation to enjoy the last of your dreams. Please do what you will with it."
The TV snapped off, but left his words ringing in my ears.
I shut my eyes, put my hands together, and—ignoring the numbness in my legs—prayed.
Let this be true. Let it be a lie. Let it be neither.
I prayed for every possibility I could think of. I prayed desperately, wanting to want everything before the cold grip of practicality took me and I was cured.