SCENE: Conference room in Area 51. GENERAL HANSON paces at the head of the table in battle fatigues. DR. CARUTHERS enters, disheveled and in sweatpants, accompanied by two soldiers.
HANSON: Dr. Eliza Caruthers?
HANSON: Dr. Eliza Caruthers of MIT? Professor of environmental science?
CARUTHERS: Applied ethics in environmental science.
HANSON: Oh, right. I’m General James Hanson; I’m in charge of things here. Please sit. Can I get you some coffee?
CARUTHERS: No thanks; I had some on the plane.
HANSON: Very well. [To guards.] You’re excused.
The guards exit.
I want to apologize for the … abrupt nature of your visit.
CARUTHERS: For waking me up at two in the morning and flying me across the country, you mean?
HANSON: Like I said … abrupt. But I would not have done so if it the circumstances did not require your expertise.
HANSON: We have, to put it a certain way, an applied ethics in environmental science emergency on our hands.
CARUTHERS: There are a lot of those nowadays.
HANSON: This one is quite pressing.
CARUTHERS: I see.
HANSON: You signed the NDA, I assume.
HANSON: None of what you will be told must leave this room. No writing about it henceforth. Certainly no live-tweeting.
CARUTHERS: I left my phone in Massachusetts.
HANSON: Splendid! Not that you could have done much if you had it. No reception and spotty wi-fi are our greatest security measures.
Enter an OFFICER wheeling a covered object in on a cart.
OFFICER: Where do I put this?
HANSON: Right here where I’m standing.
THE OFFICER wheels the cart in front of HANSON.
HANSON: Thank you, Sergeant. You may inform Dr. McKnight that we are ready for him.
THE OFFICER salutes and exits.
CARUTHERS: Dr. McKnight? Dr. Holden McKnight?
HANSON: You know him!
CARUTHERS [deadpan]: We are aware of each other.
HANSON: He’s been consulting with us on this situation for two months. He’s been instrumental in developing our understanding.
CARUTHERS: Holden is a programmer and linguist. What does this have to—
HANSON: The doctor will clarify everything momentarily.
McKNIGHT enters in jeans, a tucked-in flannel shirt, tennis shoes, a tweet jacket, and carrying a laptop.
HANSON: Dr. McKnight, this is Dr. Eli—
McKNIGHT: Dr. Caruthers, so great we were able to get you.
McKNIGHT extends and shakes CARUTHERS’s hand.
CARUTHERS: An email in advance would have been nice.
McKNIGHT [putting laptop on the cart]: The hazards of our new calling, I’m afraid.
CARUTHERS: So what is this about, exactly?
HANSON: Dr. McKnight, you have my permission to divulge our situation.
McKNIGHT: Very well. About four months ago a quiet little neighborhood in the greater Bloomfield, Indiana area was made somewhat less quiet when, around 3:30 on a Wednesday morning, it was rocked by a bright flash, and very soon by an explosion. It hit smack in the middle of the cul-de-sac, leaving numerous broken windows and other frontal damage, not to mention a massive fucking crater in the pavement. You might have seen it on CNN.
CARUTHERS: A meteorite, was it?
McKNIGHT: So it was thought at the time, and reported thereafter. But you’re probably suspecting that that wasn’t the whole story.
CARUTHERS: You could say that.
McKNIGHT: And you’d be correct. Once the object was excavated from the street and examined it was soon apparently that there was something beneath the outer matter. This, to be exact.
HANSON lifts the sheet, revealing a small black box.
CARUTHERS: A cube?
McKNIGHT: Not just any cube. [He opens the box, revealing a small white dome, a silver button and a USB outlet.] A sphere cube!
CARUTHERS [standing up, examining it closely]: I don’t get it.
McKNIGHT: No one did at first until someone pressed this button. When it was pressed, the people around it were bombarded with incomprehensible and ungodly sounds. Needless to say, that left more questions than answers. And a burst eardrum or two. [Chuckles. Pause.] So that’s when they called me. [Opens up his laptop and types on it.] When they noticed the outlet here, they sought me out to develop a program with the aim of deciphering the racket. A lot of the top noise was just static, though a kind of static no earthly ear is familiar with. It was a tall order for any seasoned technician; essentially the demand was that I build a digital antenna of some sort. [Turns the laptop screen to face CARUTHERS, it shows a white binary sequence typing itself.] One that needed to reach only God knows how far away. [Pause. Goes into his jacket pocket.] In hindsight the coding was the easy part, it would be useless without … [takes out a small case] … the receptor. [He opens the case, revealing a two-way USB plug. He attaches it to the laptop and then to the box.] General, you do the honors.
HANSON pushes the button. The dome blinks red before turning solid. It emits a shrill noise that jolts everyone, not least of all CARUTHERS, hearing it for the first time.
THE BOX [in a male voice]: Hello? [Static.] Hello? [Static.] Are you coming in?
McKNIGHT: This is Dr. Holden McKnight, we read you.
THE BOX: Ah, Dr. McKnight. So happy to hear from you again.
McKNIGHT: This isn’t a bad time, is it?
THE BOX: No, not at all, Dr. Not … at … all. To what do I owe the pleasure?
McKNIGHT: The General and I considered what you told us last time.
THE BOX: Yes?
McKNIGHT: And we’re interested in helping. So I brought on a colleague from my graduate school days who’s eminent in her field.
McKNIGHT nods to CARUTHERS.
CARUTHERS: I’m … [clears throat] I’m Dr. Eliza Caruthers, I’m a professor of applied ethics in environmental science … from MIT.
THE BOX: Cool.
McKNIGHT: So … if it’s okay with you I was hoping you could bring Dr. Caruthers up to speed on your … issue.
THE BOX: Where do you want me to start?
McKNIGHT: From the beginning, I guess?
THE BOX: Very well. [Pause.] GREETINGS PEOPLE OF … PEOPLE OF … What do you call your planet again?
McKNIGHT: Earth, it’s Earth.
THE BOX: Right, thanks. [Clears throat.] GREETINGS PEOPLE OF EARTH. I AM YOUR PLANETARY EQUIVALENT OF A DIPLOMATIC ENVOY FOR ZARKLIV—
HANSON [whispering]: We’re calling it “Melancholia” for our records.
THE BOX: YES, “MELANCHOLIA.” ANYWAY, MY NAME DLORXRORT, BUT FOR EFFICIENCY’S SAKE YOU MAY ADDRESS ME AS … KENNETH. I AM SPEAKING FROM YOU OVER THE SPAN OF THOUSANDS OF LIGHTYEARS IN A FAR-OFF SOLAR SYSTEM. I’M REACHING OUT TO YOU BECAUSE YOUR PLANET HAS MANY SIMILARITIES TO OURS. LIKE YOURS, IT IS MOSTLY WATER-BASED, BUT FILLED WITH VERDANT SPLENDOR, TEEMING WITH DIVERSE WILDLIFE, BUT DOMINATED BY A NOTABLY ADVANCED SPECIES—Hey, can I stop this voice?
THE BOX: Thank you! So … our species is not humanoid, or even bipedal, but like yours it oversees all the affairs of the planet. We are reaching out to you, humbly, to request your assistance.
CARUTHERS: What kind of assistance?
THE BOX: We are, as I said, an advanced species, Dr. Caruthers. On our planet and, as you might have suspected, on yours as well. We have progressed beyond certain things on which you Earthlings are still reliant. Things like national divisions, natural crops, paper currency, regular employment, martial conflict, and the gender binary … to name a few.
CARUTHERS: You have more than two genders?
THE BOX: We have no genders and we are satisfied, thank you. [Pause.] But what we have as yet been unable to conquer is the specter of disease. We have quite possibly eliminated far more ills on our planet than you have on yours, but we are no less vulnerable to new ones. Currently our species is suffering under a new kind of virus that has spread rapidly thanks to an exotic new pet—another thing we, evidently, have been unable to progress away from. The symptoms are fatal, about an 80 percent mortality rate at best, but the process is slow and debilitating. People who have this illness find they cannot be outside for more than a few minutes; their membranes are very sensitive to natural light. They cannot move without vomiting or succumbing to dizziness. The final stage involves horrific convulsions and secretions of all manner of bodily fluid.
HANSON: That sounds horrid.
THE BOX: It is, General. Very despairing.
CARUTHERS: So … what I was … [whispers to McKNIGHT] Can we put that on mute or something?
CARUTHERS: Mute. Can we mute it?
McKNIGHT: Excuse us a moment, Kenneth. [He takes CARUTHERS by the arm and leads her to the far corner of the room.] What’s the matter?
CARUTHERS: I mean, come on Holden. Really? Really? One-gendered quadrupeds?
McKNIGHT: You don’t know how many legs they have.
CARUTHERS: Did you vet this? Like really vet it?
McKNIGHT: For what? Who would do this?
CARUTHERS: MIT has a tech team dedicated to just this kind of thing. Hacking secured systems. Kenneth could be in a fucking basement in St. John’s, Newfoundland for all we know.
McKNIGHT: Let this be the first and final assurance that no one is podcasting into Area 51.
THE BOX: Let me also assure you, Dr. Caruthers, that this is no ruse.
CARUTHERS: I wasn’t insinu—
THE BOX: Do you not think that I’d rather be doing something else other than phoning some far off planet?
CARUTHERS: What actually do you want from us?
THE BOX: We need your help with our malady.
CARUTHERS: Is there some resource that we have but that you don’t that offers some kind of cure?
THE BOX: Not especially, no.
CARUTHERS: Well …
THE BOX: I mean that’d be nice if we got that too, but I think we’d have found that by now. [Pause.] No, actually it’s more of a space thing. As in room—not the plane that separates us. You are the nearest planet that is the least atmospherically antagonistic to us. I am reaching out to see about a temporary transfer of some of our affected to your planet.
CARUTHERS: As in a quarantine?
THE BOX: Just until we get a handle on the situation.
CARUTHERS: But there’s no cure.
THE BOX: “Temporary” has more than one meaning.
HANSON: Kenneth, have you figured out how many you’d be transferring?
THE BOX: Uh … well … that’s fair … uh … let me see. I don’t have exact figures for your metrics. But … [silence] … the present number, assuming the illness doesn’t intensify anymore than it already has is about six …
HANSON [upbeat]: Oh.
THE BOX: Hundred …
HANSON [neutral]: Oh.
THE BOX: Thousand.
HANSON [defeated]: Oh.
CARUTHERS: And what if we decline your request?
THE BOX: Decline?
CARUTHERS: You know, applied ethics and all that.
THE BOX: Refusal would be unwise.
CARUTHERS: What would happen if we refused?
THE BOX: Use your imagination. As I said we are far advan—
CARUTHERS: Far, far advanced, yes. But, like, in what way besides your shipping abilities?
THE BOX: We have way better hair than your species has.
CARUTHERS: You’re going to conquer us with your hair?
THE BOX: No, I’m just saying as an example. Our hair is better. Yes, hair on “Melancholia” is not really the same as hair is understood on Earth. But it’s all uphill from there. For us, that is.
CARUTHERS: Even so … [Pause.] Say all of this goes as you foresee it. Getting things arranged will be very complicated going forward. We have to get this to the President, who must then appeal to the United Nations or NORAD or NATO or something.
THE BOX: Why are you being so process-heavy all of a sudden? The last people we dealt with were much more streamlined.
CARUTHERS: You … You’ve done this already?
THE BOX: What, you thought you were the first people we reached out to?
CARUTHERS: Who were the first? [Looks to HANSON and McKNIGHT.] Guys?
The two men look back blankly.
THE BOX: I’d have to go back and check. But they said they were the People’s Republic. What reason did we have to not believe them?
CARUTHERS: How long has this been going on?
THE BOX: A year … year and a half.
CARUTHERS: How many?
THE BOX: Like 4,000. A dry run. It’s fine from where we’re sitting and we’re not hearing complaints from them. So far as I know.
CARUTHERS: How many quarantines are you expecting to set up?
THE BOX: As many as it takes. You’d do the same, I’m sure.
CARUTHERS: Okay. Assume everything is fine. The process goes smoothly and we let you drop off your sick. Where would we put them?
THE BOX: In a safe place, I can assure you.
CARUTHERS: You’re going to have to be more specific if we’re making these arrangements.
THE BOX: The arrangements are already made.
CARUTHERS: Excuse me?
THE BOX: I feel like something needs to be cleared up between the three of you.
CARUTHERS: Guys what the fuck is he talking about?
McKNIGHT: Uh … I was going to mention …
CARUTHERS [sternly]: What Holden?
McKNIGHT: We didn’t make the connection right away. [Pause.] About a week after the box landed in Indiana, the residents of the neighborhood, who were basically stuck there, started to show some kind of … symptoms.
McKNIGHT: Like they were gassed or something. Vomiting, light-headedness, blisters.
HANSON: Don’t forget to mention the … uh ….
McKNIGHT: Oh yeah, then vines started spreading from the crater. Now they’re pretty much all over town. And it’s growing.
HANSON: They’re being covered as wildfires in the media.
CARUTHERS: So the whole town is infected.
CARUTHERS: It’s quarantined already.
CARUTHERS: So here’s a question. Did you two drag me out of bed just to impress me? Because I—
McKNIGHT: We’re in dark territory, Eliza. All of us.
CARUTHERS: I’ll say. [Pause.] So what is this all for? Some rubber stamp? This is ethically sound regardless of wider impact?
THE BOX: I was trying to be polite.
CARUTHERS [somewhat mockingly]: And I appreciate that, Kenneth.
THE BOX: I may be in another solar system, Dr. Caruthers, but I can still detect sarcasm.
CARUTHERS makes a sour expression at THE BOX. Pause.
CARUTHERS [to HANSON]: Have you at least contained the area?
THE BOX: The area is self-containing. The atmospheric adjustment is designed to extend to a predetermined radius, as much as needed to accommodate our sick. The landing point for the box was the exact center of that radius. We of course regret the inconvenience to the people of the town.
CARUTHERS: I would not want to see how you handle invasions.
THE BOX: No. You would not.
CARUTHERS: So how are you guys going to play this once this covers the entire south of Indiana?
HANSON: Chemical plant explosion.
CARUTHERS looks at him incredulously.
Maybe two chemical plant explosions.
CARUTHERS [deadpan]: I think maybe I will take that coffee now.
HANSON: I think we can all use some.
HANSON exits. McKNIGHT takes a seat next to CARUTHERS.
McKNIGHT: Please understand that I didn’t mean to deceive you. [Pause.] Yes, I admit, you should not have been called so late in the process. [Pause.] But things were moving so fast, and it’s completely out of our hands. [Pause.] Look at the bright side; you get to be a part of something momentous. Something no hum— … Something no American has done before. The honors would be—
CARUTHERS: What honors? The only way this is every going to be known is if we fuck this up—and we will.
McKNIGHT: Come on, what are the chances?
CARUTHERS: Ballpark … like … 85 percent.
McKNIGHT [laughing]: Eight— … 85! Come on, give me your optimistic estimate.
CARUTHERS [staring harshly]: That is my optimistic estimate, Holden. [Points to her face.] This is my optimistic face.
HANSON returns, hands CARUTHERS a cup of coffee.
HANSON: Sorry, I forgot to ask if you take anything.
CARUTHERS: Black is fine.
THE BOX: So I’m still here.
CARUTHERS [standing up, stomping to the box]: Oh fuck off, Kenneth.
CARUTHERS yanks the receptor and throws it at McKNIGHT. The red dome becomes white again.
McKNIGHT: Hey be careful! That cost $400,000 to make!
CARUTHERS slumps back in her seat and sips her coffee, wincing slightly at its bitterness.
CARUTHERS: Applied ethics, my tit.