I wrote this story for the Cold Hard Type project, but it didn’t get accepted, so here it is!
ALIENS DON’T USE TYPEWRITERS
©D. J. Nathan 2018
I was sitting at the kitchen table with my morning tea when it happened. At first I hardly paid it much heed, since the house was quite bright with the sun shining in the window. Only after I’d finished the first cup did I notice that the power was out. It’ll be back in a few minutes, I thought. There will be a beep from the microwave, the stove, and the computer upstairs as it reboots. I got up and went to the pantry where the cookies were. I brought the package to the table and poured myself another cup of tea, and had to go to the fridge for a little more milk. There wasn’t much left in the carton so I made a note on the shopping list that we always kept on the bureau in the dining room. I wrote milk and cookies on the list. I put a dash of milk in my tea and put the carton back in the fridge.
I picked up my book and went to sit in the living room in my favourite chair, a yellow corduroy recliner with worn out cloth on the arms. Then I decided to call my wife and let her know we had no power, in case she wanted me to come downtown and then we could go grab dinner out somewhere. I picked up the phone but it was dead. I opened the browser. The news would have something about it. I was certain I could find out why we had no power in less than a minute. No message, nothing. Nothing.
It was just after lunchtime, when I heard the front door open and close.
It’s me, she said. We have no power at work.
It must be out everywhere, I said.
I walked home, she said. I tried to call but cell service is dead, too.
Where’s the transistor, I said?
She opened the bureau drawer and pulled out the little transistor radio. There was only static. We waited for the news, but it didn’t come. She put the radio down on the table and lowered the volume so it wasn’t quite so disturbing.
This is weird, she said. Usually there’s something on the news.
I looked at her face, and she looked very scared. I’d never seen such a look before, and it worried me to see it. I tried to be nonchalant, being the brave man, the take charge guy who was supposed to figure out what to do at times like this, but I was getting nervous. This wasn’t like any other power outage I’d ever experienced, and I’d been in lots of those in my life. I poured two cups of tea and we shared what little milk was left, and ate a few cookies.
The next morning we walked to the grocery store and there was a line up going down the block. The door was open and a policeman was letting people in, a few at a time. I got in line and decided to see if I could get something when my turn came up, anything I could. People were talking, but it was mostly rumours. It was as if the world of information had just vanished in an instant. I could hear the diesel generators roaring behind the store, and when I got to the door after three hours the store was lit by just a few emergency lights.
How many are you shopping for, asked the cop at the door?
Me and my wife, I said.
You have ten minutes, he said, and one shopping bag full, no more. No hoarding; that means nothing in excess – understand?
I knew where everything was, so I quickly grabbed one bag of food and went to pay. It was cash only. The cashier had difficulty counting my change, after having relied on the cash register to think for him for so many years.
You owe me three seventy, I said.
He looked at me and handed me my change.
Thanks, he said.
I got home and we made some tea and put milk in it. I couldn’t believe how good it tasted. We cooked the hamburger I’d acquired and ate that with bread and some frozen vegetables, and the last of the salad greens.
We should go to the garden, she said. We have lots of kale and chard still growing.
After dinner we walked over to our allotment garden, about a mile from the house. When we got to our plot there was nothing left. All the vegetables had been cut down by scavengers. Crows were pecking all over where produce had been ripped out, leaving clumps of overturned dirt.
Within a month, the grocery store was a wasteland of overturned shelves and broken glass, like all the shops in the mall. We were all living crammed into one house for safety and warmth, the kids and grandkids and my sister and brother-in-law. Using bricks, stones and bits of pipe, we constructed a fireplace in the house with primitive masonry skills, and survived the winter burning bits of scavenged wood and furniture. Soon we knew all our neighbors by name.
The women did the cooking, and the men went out every day to find food or work. The deer in the park had been shot and the meat given away through central distribution at the police station. The police were keeping a semblance of order, due to their having guns and a chain of command. They got food for their efforts, or they would have quit and gone home like everyone else. Many months passed, and people got thinner and thinner.
There was a rapid transition to a barter economy, where practical skills were the most valuable ones. People who didn’t know any useful things had the worst of it. Suddenly if you could fix a bicycle, you could barter that for food. If you could handle a saw and a hammer, you could eat.
Nobody had a job but for the bare essential services, like doctors and teachers. Slowly but surely the fuel supply dwindled and what little was left was reserved for fire trucks and ambulances. Police went back to walking the beat or riding horses. Digging outhouse pits became a hot business. The library was packed, since there was nothing to read but books. Teachers, who kept working even though classrooms had no light or power, could write on the chalkboard and read books to the class. Kids were paying much closer attention in class and writing skills showed vast improvement.
Winter came and everyone was outside shoveling and playing in the snow. Kids skated on lakes and ponds until the sun went down. Still, nobody knew why the power was gone.
News began to arrive in the way of typed sheets of paper that made the rounds of the neighborhood. One day a paper came that said someone had just sailed into the harbor from Japan, and they were in the same condition we were. At the bottom of the page was a plea for help with writing communiqués. Also, we are in desperate need of typewriters, it said.
I showed this to my wife and said, what do you think?
Don’t give them a typewriter, unless you get something.
Later that day I walked to the police station with an old typewriter in my backpack. There was a lineup of people needing to speak to somebody in authority, and no other way except by being there, and waiting.
The line was hardly moving, so after a half hour I asked the guy behind me to hold my place for a minute. I ambled to the front of the queue and stood there until the first person was done. The cop looked at me with impatience, as he had a right to do with people trying to get information out of turn.
This better be urgent, he said, or else wait your turn like everyone else.
I have a typewriter, I said.
A typewriter, he said, eyes lighting up. Where?
In my pack.
OK, leave it here, he said, I’ll take care of it.
I’m not leaving it, I said. I want to see whoever it is that wants it.
The woman at the front of the line gave me a pained look, and sighed.
They desperately need them, I said to her.
The desk cop left for a minute and was back with a woman right on his heels. He pointed my way.
This guy, he said.
Hello, said the woman, please follow me.
We walked down a dim hallway past a series of open doors that let light in from adjoining rooms. I entered a room where a dozen people sat near the windows, typing on manual typewriters.
So, you have a typewriter, she said? May I see it?
I slung the bag off, unzipped the back flap and lifted out a typewriter in a pale green case.
This was my Dad’s, I said.
Does it work?
Oh yeah, all his typewriters work.
All his typewriters, she said? Do you mean there’s more?
Yeah, there’s a few, I said. How many do you need?
We could use six, she said, and other offices need some. We pay good money, nothing comes free these days.
There’s a fixed price, five hundred.
OK, but I want a job, I said. I can type.
I’ll need ID, she said.
I fished out my DNA chip card and she looked at the picture.
OK, at least it looks like you, she said. We have a job for a typist, if your typewriter works.
Did you ever hear of a Hermes 3000?
No, she said. What’s that?
According to my Dad, the best typewriter ever made, I said.
Every typewriter is the best typewriter ever made, if it works, she said.
Yeah, I suppose so. This works. If not, I can get one that does.
Alright, she said, let’s see if you can type. Set it up here. I’ll be right back.
The paper was in the platen and I was ready to prove my typing skills, when she returned with a man.
Hello, said the man. I knew your father. So this was his?
Yes and no, I said. My Grandfather collected them.
I see, he said. Well, what matters is you’ve brought us a typewriter. We don’t need typists as much as we need translators. Can you speak any other languages?
I started to name some; Polish, Russian …
You’ll do, he said.
I have a Russian typewriter, I added.
We need it, he said. Can you bring it tomorrow?
No problem; if you hire me, that is.
Understood, he said. I should have known Terry’s kid would be a linguist! What’s your name?
Welcome aboard, Leo, he said, grabbing my hand and shaking it vigorously.
What about the typing test, the woman interjected?
Forget it, said the man, I need this fellow for something more important. Come with me, Leo, you need to meet someone. Just leave the typewriter for now.
I ran up the stairs after him and he knocked at a locked door. It opened and there stood a man in a white uniform with a short grizzly beard.
Leo, this is Captain Flint, he said. Like the pirate in Treasure Island.
Never read it, I said. Pirate treasure didn’t interest me.
Flint snorted. Too bad, he said. But we’re after a serious buried treasure.
What isn’t serious these days, I asked? I mean, how long can we exist with no power?
There are worse problems than no power, said Flint. Mankind lived without electricity for eons. Power outage is nothing compared to what we’re up against.
What are we up against?
The end of the planet, said Flint. The extinction of all life on earth … unless we stop them.
Aliens, but you didn’t hear it from me. I know you can keep a secret.
How is that, I asked? You don’t know me at all.
But I do, he said. Your Grandfather was a member of the Typerati.
I had to snicker.
That was a joke my Dad used to tease my Grandfather about, I said. He fancied he was saving the world with his old manual typewriters; writing stuff no one could spy on.
That was their cover, said Flint. They were a secret worldwide organization – like the Resistance in the Second World War.
What did the Typerati do?
They kept tabs on threats to the world and to civilization.
But what can be done about this, I asked? Are they going to restore the power?
One step at a time, said Flint. Do you get sea sick?
I’ve never been to sea, I said, but I don’t get car sick.
That will have to do, he said. We sail at the next tide. Get your things ready and be back before dawn tomorrow. And bring that Russian typewriter.
Where are we going, I asked?
Do I have to go?
Do you want to save the world, Flint replied?
I walked home puzzled by what had happened, but no matter how much I thought on it, nothing made sense. I had a feeling that I was soon going to learn a lot more about the situation.
The old wooden ship had been a tourist attraction for years when they hauled it away to the naval yards to be refit. It was a good thing the Navy still trained sailors on sailing ships or we wouldn’t have gotten past the mouth of the Juan de Fuca Strait. We beat into the wind past Cape Flattery and set course for the South Pacific. It was the unlikeliest voyage imaginable; fifty young sea dogs, one typist, Jim the pigeon master, and Jack Flint the would-be pirate captain, all heading to an unknown destiny on a small wooden ship from the century before last.
As soon as we passed Flattery, Flint heaved his prosthetic leg into the water and had the carpenter make him one from a thick dowel, which he strapped to his stump with a heavy leather belt. I was installed in a cabin across from Flint’s, where he kept me busy typing communiqués, after which Jim would tie them to a pigeon and send them off into the blue. Every few hours we received a communiqué, but I had no idea where they came from.
That night I found it hard to sleep, so I went up on deck and saw Flint looking out to sea, muttering to himself and shaking his fist at something. He was completely mad for all I knew, but he was captain and master of us all. Weeks went by and we sailed on through storm after storm, while I typed and typed and Flint sent pigeons into the blue and took readings with his sextant.
One night after I had dined with Flint and the officers in the Captain’s mess, Flint came into my cabin with a bottle of rum. He pulled up a chair at my tiny desk and poured out two long shots, then he handed me my cup and said, Leo, I guess you’re wondering what the hell is going on?
Yes, Sir, I said.
Well, it’s time you knew. I want you to write this down so nobody ever accuses you of making it up, and I’ll be your witness.
Do you want me to type it up right now?
No, just listen, you can type later. Drink up, man, this is the best rum we’ve got in the whole damned Navy!
I sipped the rum, which I hated, but tried not to show it.
Good rum, I said, feeling like a damned liar.
You don’t have to flatter me, said Flint. Just drink and listen.
He began a preposterous tale, but considering the circumstances in which I found myself, I was inclined to believe it.
Leo, the day the power went out, the earth was attacked by aliens. Now don’t laugh or start thinking the old goat’s off his rocker. I may be, but this is God’s truth.
Aliens, I said?
Flint nodded and looked straight into my eyes. The look in his eyes chilled me.
An entire fleet, he said, slowly and emphatically. Just like that!
Why haven’t we seen them, I asked?
Because they don’t give a damn about humans. They don’t want what we have. They need the planet, period.
You mean to live on, I asked?
No, for the energy. We have to stop them before they release the core’s heat.
Release the what?
The core of the earth is a ball of molten iron, said Flint, as we all know.
They don’t teach that in school these days.
Never mind, said Flint.
He shot back more rum and filled his cup. I drank down my cup too, as I had a sudden urge to get drunk. Flint filled my cup, and carried on.
With their superior technology, it was a simple matter for them to land at strategic points on the globe and shut down all power generation within minutes. They jammed all radio communication, and began drilling through the earth’s crust. Every last site is under water, fortunately for us, because that’s where the aliens made their big mistake.
What mistake is that, I asked?
Failing to realize that humans have learned to communicate with dolphins. What do you think of that, eh?
A little hard to believe.
Yeah, so it is, but so is a cockamamie story about aliens sucking heat from the core of the earth, wouldn’t you say?
I would, said I.
Good, said Flint. Thanks to our trained dolphins, when the aliens began drilling, the Navy was notified. The problem is, all our ships depended on radio communication, and as you know, the aliens were able to block and disable all that.
And they assumed we couldn’t do anything to stop them?
Right. We may be worms to them but we’re not about to go down without a fight. One thing we learned was that aliens can detect metal ships, but not wooden ones. We’ve been testing them. Trust me; we wouldn’t be here if they could detect us. This is where it gets interesting. You remember what I said about the Typerati?
Yes, they keep tabs on threats to the world – but so what?
The aliens do no surveillance, in the mistaken belief that all human communication has been stopped. The concept of typewriters to them is unimaginable. All this time, police and security agencies have been collecting information from all over the world. Our main problem is sharing information, which has to travel the old fashioned way. Who’d have thought the fate of the earth would be decided by pigeons!
Not me, I said. But why are the Typerati important?
Networking. The Typerati have long maintained a clandestine network of typewritten communiqués, and this allows our intelligence to flow around the world once again, all in top secret. By using codes, Typerati send messages ordinary readers can’t decipher.
Why use codes, I asked?
Flint snickered. The last thing we need is for the secret to get out. Leo, we have one chance to stop these aliens, but it requires perfect timing, coordination and total secrecy. At this very moment ships like this from all over the globe are heading towards alien landing sites. This is the greatest military operation since D-Day, and if it fails it will be the last.
There I was, halfway across the Pacific Ocean, typing coded messages in Russian on my Grandfather’s old Olympia Progress typewriter, while Jack Flint filled my head with tales of aliens and talking dolphins.
He had his own copy of Treasure Island that I often saw him reading on the poop deck in the evening, his old white sailor hat tied onto his big grey head with a thick cord to keep it from blowing off. He was always puffing on a big cigar, the aroma of which pervaded the air. One night he suddenly shut the book and leapt to his feet.
That’s it, he said, that’s the last time I’ll ever read this book. What a damned shame!
He handed it to me.
Here Leo, I want you to have this. It’s the best study of men and the sea that you’ll ever set eyes on, except maybe for Moby Dick. I prefer Long John Silver to Ahab any day. Ah well, what does it all matter? Come, I have something to show you.
We went down deep into the hold, below the waterline. There I beheld a grey oblong tank the size of a small whale. Two sailors jumped to attention at the sight of Flint.
Flint saluted and said, at ease boys. How’s my baby?
She’s fine, Admiral Sir, said one sailor. We’re keeping her clean and dry, Sir.
Excellent, said Flint. Let’s hope she’s still waterproof.
I followed Flint back up to the rear of the poop deck. We stood together, looking down at the wake as we ploughed through the blue-black sea, riding huge swells in one endless undulating motion.
Do you know what’s inside that thing, he asked?
I have no idea.
The most powerful bomb ever devised on this planet, he said. Outside the Navy, you are the only civilian who’s ever laid eyes on it.
And what are we to do with it, I asked?
I was afraid to hear the answer, in case it was something like; we sail up to the aliens and detonate it.
We sail up to those aliens and detonate it, said Flint, a hint of satisfaction in his voice.
How are we going to manage that, I asked?
Well, it’s simple really, said Flint. What you saw was not an ordinary submarine. It’s a submersible, designed to float along with ocean currents. That’s where my dolphins come in. They’re going to guide it in.
Do they know about the bomb?
No, but they’ll be long gone, said Flint, like you and this ship. As long as we get the right drift, all’s well. If not, we gave it our best shot. Your job is to record it all, everything, including our little talk here, and type up the record, then send it off on one of those pigeons. These boys will take this bucket back to Seattle if anybody can, and maybe by the time you get back it will be a new world. Maybe, or maybe not.
And how will the bomb go off, I asked?
Well, let’s just say old Jack Flint’s going to take care of that.
He took one last drag on his cigar and tossed it out into the night. The glowing red ember traced an arc in the inky blackness and went out in a blink. Then Jack Flint hobbled off without another word, leaving me at the rail, speechless. I stared into the night for a while and went down to my bunk.
The next day I was busy writing communiqués and didn’t see Flint at all. A storm blew in and we hunkered down in raging seas that nearly sunk us. I didn’t dare go up, but there was activity aplenty on the ladders and much shouting of commands. All hands were on deck, then dropping through hatches on and off all day, until the storm blew over. I didn’t know how far we had blown, but we didn’t strike sail so we must have covered a lot of water.
Three more days passed and one morning, at dawn, I heard whistles going fore and aft and scrambled from my bunk. The entire crew was on deck. The submersible was coming up out of the main hatch on a huge chain block, rigged to a monstrous gantry that hung out over the starboard rail. The crew maneuvered the thing up and out over the water, where it was let down and sank almost to the hatchway on the top side.
It bobbed with the waves and then the hatch opened and up popped Jack Flint’s head. He climbed out so that his upper torso was visible, and the First Officer shouted for order. The entire ship went silent. Jack Flint stood up tall and gave the salute, at which the crew snapped their right arms to their heads like they had one mind.
Salute done, the First Officer shouted Hip-Hip, and the men followed with Hooray, thrice. Flint nodded and then the hatch came down. Minutes later the submersible gave a little blurp and disappeared beneath the surface, leaving a small spiral disturbance that was gone in seconds. We hove to and slowly came about. The sails filled out and I felt the ship lurch and catch the breeze, then surge forward.
I could have written this on my Omnibrain Thought Transfer Device, but after what happened I couldn’t bring myself to use that again, so instead I got out my Dad’s old Royal 10 and typed it. Halfway home we were intercepted by the Navy and they confiscated my Russian typewriter, which I could not get back no matter how many inquiries I made. Then one day, about five years later, it mysteriously appeared at the front door, with a note in Russian code;
Don’t believe everything they say, or even what I say.