Consider this text file my final legacy.
Sorry to all I've left behind. I'd like to tell you why, but I literally don't know where to start. It didn't start with the abduction nor with the singularity stone nor when I entered the woods.
No, it all started with a single headline.
"Two college students abducted by aliens?"
The moment I glanced at my sponge rather than the screen, the message had already disappeared. Burger Bob's news screen now advertised the documentary Foreign Worlds.
I guess I had lost my mind from cleaning empty tables for hours. Either that or the tabloids sought to exploit the gullibility of Ernstburgh's townsfolk. Fairy stories about aliens had soared in popularity ever since the alleged wormholes had been discovered.
At the table next to me, an old woman shared a burger with her pet robot. The robot had a photo of her grandson's face glued to its monitor. She knew her real family would never return to this town.
"I want you to study hard and do your homework well," she said, then pointed to me. "Otherwise you end up like this man!"
Ignore her, I thought.
Should I have told her that I did this for college? Thinking about it, she was not entirely wrong though. My chances of remaining stuck here even after completing my physics degree were damn high.
"Lunchtime!" Emma called from the common room.
"Sure," I whispered.
Like the lifeless doll I was, I dropped my sponge and turned to the common room.
Above the door to it hung a micro-LED monitor on that showed the news. The first headline for me to see was about some fancy farmscraper; the first of its kind to be completed in America. Great. In just ten years, even small towns would be full of them and Burger Bob would be even more dependent on the bio-corporations. Maybe that grandson could work for them. While that was interesting, the next headline was even crazier. It read "Unidentified Flying Object 'sighted'".
Maybe that was the real headline and the alien abduction was just something I had imagined. Under the title was the blurry photo of a night forest. Starved tree trunks as thick as branches squeezed together in blue mist as if they sought shelter from the cold. Bushes and grasses were prominent, too.
The only thing missing was an actual UFO. No flying saucers in the air, no ominous lights in the sky - nothing. Was the bad resolution to blame?
When I tried to read the text, the article was replaced by the usual reports of broken celebrity marriages. Now two minutes of political scandals had to pass before things got interesting again.
I wondered why they couldn't at least photoshop a flying saucer into the forest to make their story more credible. Or were the quotation marks around the word "sighted" supposed to tell me something?
"Are you going to come?" Emma asked again.
It was just tabloid journalism anyway. A dead forest didn't scare me. What was I supposed to expect from the news terminal in a fast food restaurant run by Mr. Graves?
I opened the door to the common room a crack wide. To my relief, only Emma and Steve were sitting at the table.
Mr. Graves was nowhere in sight. Compared to the continuous noise avalanche nearby, this room was practically a library.
The common room had the aesthetics of a junkyard being piled over a hotel room. In other words, basically what happened when you didn't automate your cleaning personnel. Grease stains and cracks on the wooden table contrasted with spaciousness and rich decoration you rarely saw in Ernstburgh. The mustard-yellow wall opposite the door was adorned with pictures of Philipp Graves' father Robert, the founder of this house, and the birth of Burger Bob. There were exactly 20 pieces and they were arranged symmetrically. First four on top of each other, then four times three, then four again.
"Lucas, are you perhaps a fan of the rule of three?" Steve asked.
Steve and Emma sat opposite each other on the left side of the table. My seat was on the far right. I put my hands on the table, but they didn't want to stay there. My chair rocked back and forth, my head rocked up and down. Graves would have complained again and threatened to fire me if he had seen it, but the two didn't care. Emma was talking about the upcoming 2037 Summer Olympics while Ben tried on his new horn-rimmed glasses. In addition to the blue hair and his skinny body, this was the final touch that he lacked for his hipster image. He'd probably wear a band shirt if we didn't all have to wear yellow uniforms.
Emma was more conservative by comparison, almost like someone who'd be handing out watchtowers. That bun of hers wasn't something she only wore in the kitchen.
Me? I was just your typical skinny geek without the height or the style of Steve to make up for it. Coupled with my long, tousled hair, I could have almost passed for a blonde mop.
They both already had half-finished their burgers. An untouched one remained on a plate on the table for me. Lab meat, I could tell. "Real" meat usually had a crisper color. I couldn't tell if the salad had been "real" or GMO-based though. Not that I minded. I ate whatever was available.
Was it appropriate to say "thank you"? The two seemed busy talking.
They discussed all those scandals in the news about biomodifications used for the Olympics and if there was a point in prohibiting it if everyone did it. How could they eat so quickly while talking? I had my opinions on this, but I couldn't focus on their debate. The UFO just wouldn't get out of my head.
When I pulled out my phone and entered "Unidentified flying object" into the search engine, I was overwhelmed by the number of results. None of the articles were older than twelve hours, the youngest were minutes old. Many spoke of a UFO, while others more euphemistically referred to "a flying object we can't identify". The Daily Post was even more bizarre. Its headline was almost exactly the same as what I had seen earlier: "College students abducted by an invisible UFO?"
I wasn't used to such headlines from a source I had otherwise deemed trustworthy. I even checked the date to make sure it wasn't April 1st. As I remembered right, it was August 9th, almost half a year after the Fool's Day. Another alien fairy story, really? The idea that the aliens could even make themselves invisible was just the icing on top of the cake.
On the other hand, maybe that was what the other newspaper meant by „sighted".
I clicked the link to the Daily Post article.
Instead of the blurry picture I had seen earlier, the article opened with a thermal image of the same forest. Fire-colored tree trunks shot out of the ground against an indigo blue background. Only one object was out of place.
The resolution was poor, but I could make out the general shape. It was unnatural and unlike the aerodynamic shapes one would have expected. Geometrically, it consisted of two hemispheres with a bridge between them, kinda like an oxygen molecule that had been cut in half. Or two aircraft wings that had been connected so that they formed a dumbbell shape. These analogies didn't do the entire object justice though. The „dumbbell" had a planar wing under it to which it was also connected. You could imagine it as a double-decker, with the upper wing also being the plane. And needless to say, it indeed didn't touch the ground.
Okay, pretty alien in shape without being a flying saucer.
It's yellow and red hues were exactly like those of the trees. I knew how precise modern day thermal imaging was. Either I was colorblind or it could cool itself to tree temperature at night. The latter was a cool thought.
I tapped my phone to play a video. The object flew for two seconds with no propeller or jet propulsion to be heard. I repeated the video. Again and again.
"What's that look?" Steve asked. "Has Mr. Graves raised your salary?"
"It's nothing," I said. "Feel free to see for yourself."
I pushed the cell phone in Steve's direction, but it only made it halfway.
"You know you can just come closer, right?" he said. "We don't bite."
I slid from chair to chair until I was by his side. Emma leaned over the table while Steve played the video several times.
He laughed. "Cute. Is that some kind of drone?"
"Are there even drones that are so ... un-drone-like?" Emma asked.
"I think so. Many of them are helicopters with four propellers."
"There are quadcopters," I said. "But they look different."
Both were silent in the way that told me I was an insufferable know-it-all. At least that's how I understood it. Not that I could blame them. Even after learning about my Asperger's syndrome, I still didn't like most of my little professor moments.
It was Steve who finally broke the tension. "Dronology aside, is there any evidence that it's really invisible?"
"It's not clear from this video if this was what you were asking," I said. "There are more than enough programs to fake such an infrared effect. On the other hand, there has to be a reason why the thing gets so much attention. The Daily Post is a reliable source-"
"No offense, but could you, like, shut up for a while and let me read?" Steve said.
Steve wasn't angry like I expected him to be. Instead, he was too busy staring at the screen in bewilderment.
"Damn, it's even in Ernstburgh," he said. "And it might be related to the missing college students."
"Um, yeah, haven't you read the title?" I chimed in.
Steve scrolled up and then furrowed his brow. Then he scrolled down to keep reading.
"And you weren't concerned with this at all?" Emma asked.
"I guess this whole stuff with the alien abduction was too ridiculous to get emotionally invested," I said.
"Dude, you go to Leinfeld University, too, don't you?" Steve asked.
We never saw each other there, but given that our shifts were nearly identical today, I could guess he had a lecture this morning, too.
"Haven't you heard them talking? The faculty even sent a mail to everyone that two students named Layla and Kira went missing. No-one could reach them."
"How long have they been missing?"
"Since today, basically."
"Don't you usually need a bit more time before you can declare an adult to be missings? The attention seems a bit excessive."
"It isn't," Steve said and pushed my phone back. "Read the article. They're mentioned in it, hence the attention. It sounds like something taken straight out of a horror movie with cell phones failing and all."
I took my phone back and then I read.
"Alleged UFOs have been fueling conspiracy theories for over a century, even more so with the recent alleged wormhole discoveries. However, a very specific UFO sighting does not leave alien enthusiasts in peace.
"A picture of a forest at night was posted on social media with the comment 'spooky'. "
The last line was a link, probably to the social media profile. So far, the tone summed up my skepticism quite well.
"Shortly afterward, a thermal camera video was shown in the same profile which, according to the user, is supposed to represent an invisible vehicle. The footage shows a dumbbell-like object whose shape is very dissimilar to the popular flying saucers."
Again, the text was a link. So, this person took two pictures. That explains why the news terminal outside and the Daily Post article here used different articles
"Curiously, the police received a call from a young woman after creating both posts.
"She literally said, 'Police here? I'm in a forest right now and there's a-'
"The signal could no longer be traced."
So much for the alleged inability of those new 7G models to ever go down. People still needed horror stories, after all.
"The social media profile belonged to a student at Leinfeld University named Kira Semenova. Neither she nor a close associate of hers named Layla Walker could be contacted by any of their friends."
"Well, that's unfortunate," I said.
"wEll, that'S uNfOrtUnate," Steve repeated in a silly voice.
I sighed. I wasn't good at intonation, but I had to get through this.
"I'm serious," I said. "We aren't the cops. Nor are we any sort of knights that can save those distressed damsels from some mythical aliens. Even if I sounded sad enough, it wouldn't bring them back."
"Don't you feel a little heartless though?" Emma asked.
I had nothing to say in response. I mean, I did feel sorry for them. I just didn't see much of a point in making it absolutely clear to everybody.
"Well, I kinda feel bad about shutting you up, so how about switching the topic?" Steve asked. "What makes you think these aliens are ‚mythical'?"
"They are an outgrowth of modern-day folklore," I said. "A few hundred years ago, you had fairy abductions instead of alien abductions, but the concept was the same."
"Fairy abductions?" Emma asked.
"Yeah, not talking about pop culture fairies here."
Steve swallowed the final remnants of his burger. "This ain't the first time someone from our college went missing though. Remember the news about our faculty even you must have noticed last year? Thomas Leinfeld, Mustafa Ay, Elizabeth Manson, and all those other folks who took a trip to Antarctica and, well, didn't come back to tell us how it was?"
"Bad things happen all the time. I know accidents aren't as cool as fairy stories, but do you know how improbable the alien thing is? Not even taking into account how hard it would be to send flying objects in and out of our atmosphere without anyone noticing. There's no stealth in space."
"They thought the moon landings were impossible, too," Steve said. "My philosophy is that you should never be too sure. A goldfish sees its glass and thinks that's all there is about the world."
I rolled my eyes. At least I hoped that was what it looked like. I couldn't think of a response sentence at the moment, so I just took another bite of my burger.
Steve continued. "And who says that those fairies weren't really aliens in disguise? I mean, I get that those stories used to be ridiculous earlier, but today, we know that our solar system is connected to a portal-"
"What's the difference?"
"A portal is magical. A wormhole at least has some basis in scientific speculation."
"Then a wormhole. Today we know that there's a wormhole to distant worlds in our solar system. That makes an alien abduction infinitely more credible."
"What we have are objects beyond Neptune that show a gravity anomaly," I said. "The notion that this anomaly shows a wormhole is speculative at best."
Steve sighed. "Sincere apologies for not being smarter than, like, the vast majority of scientists!"
"The majority of scientists only speculate that it is a wormhole. They don't jump to hasty conclusions as you do. We still don't know where it comes from and why we haven't discovered it earlier."
"Guys!" Emma said.
Her posture was rigid, her arms crossed over her chest and a foot of hers tapped the floor. How long had she been doing this? Her tapping was silent enough for me to overhear it for our entire conversation. Despite not being much older than me, she made an excellent "boss lady" impression with her bun and stern glare.
"What's so interesting about the science behind alien abduction?" she asked. "You guys are like 'Okay, let's not talk about the murder of our friend, that's too depressing, let's instead talk about the physics behind how her throat was slashed'."
"Sorry," I said. "I didn't know them."
"Well, I knew Kira!" Emma said.
Wrong words, again. Conversations like these were like reading off a script for me, only that I had to improvise a new script every few moments without too long breaks.
"I'm sorry," I said. "And I really, really mean it when I say I'm sorry. I just can't fake emotion so well where there isn't any. I'm not as good at that as Steve who likely didn't know her either."
"Yeah, I didn't," he said, "but I have this cool thing known as basic human decency!"
"You're implying I lack decency? You realize I'm going through this stupid job to feed my family?"
Steve raised his voice. "Don't kid yourself! In the days of our parents when we still had the minimum wage, maybe I would have believed you that. But now? Your time would be better spent collecting bottles!"
"Then why are you here?"
"For the same reason why you are really here. You know how useless your degree will be, but you want to pretend otherwise. You want to feel useful."
I focused on the article again. Maybe he was right. Or maybe he wasn't. There was no way to scientifically calculate whether this was a waste of time or not. What I did know was that lunchtime was almost over and I still hadn't finished my burger yet. I was just so slow at chewing.
And as much as I knew how unhygienic touching a screen with fatty fingers was, I was still curious. The river on the bottom left of the thermal image seemed familiar to me. Especially the arrangement of the saplings on the bank behind the river caught my eye. Seven were on the right side of, thirteen on the left. That was how I remembered this location. I had often hiked in the forest near the Leinfeld River when I was younger to collect rare leaves, chestnuts, or pinecones. The two densely packed prime number tree nurseries set this place apart from all others. Admittedly, from my vantage point, the seven were usually on the left and the thirteen on the right, but this video was filmed from the other side of the river.
Looks like the notion of this being none of my business was wrong.
I knew the place of the alleged abduction.