Author: David Barber

“What did you say this place was called?” repeated the alien.

“The Large Hadron Collider.”

The man’s name was Theo Jacobson, and before the aliens came, he’d been in charge here. This was where debris from colliding protons had sparkled through the ATLAS detector. It would have been lethal to stand here once. He couldn’t get used to the silence in these vast cathedral spaces.

“Such efforts your kind put into science.”

“Such foolishness,” added its Shadow.

The aliens always went about in pairs; the True and its Shadow. Like so much else, the significance of this eluded us.

The True waved a three-fingered hand. They assumed human form for our convenience, they said. Perhaps they hadn’t looked very closely. “Explain its purpose again.”

The man was weary of all this. “The Higgs boson.”

“A made-up particle.” Grinning, the Shadow waved its arm through the yellow steel tubing of the safety rail.

Holograms, the scientist in Jacobson protested. Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. Without thinking, he did the experiment and the alien offered no resistance to his hand.

“You are in love with matter,” declared the True, unconcerned. Much of what they said sounded like quotes. “You expect us to be flesh, but we are beyond all that.”

Its Shadow butted in. “Hadrons. Bosons. Holograms. Your science words explain nothing.” It had a go at laughter, sounding like a creaky door.

Jacobson had tried to make sense of what they had told humankind, how the New Agers and astrologers, the believers in spirits, crystals, and magic had been right all along.

It was nonsense. He banged his fist on the safety railing and the sound boomed round the detector hall. I refute it thus!

“Either you are tricking us, or all of science is wrong,” he persisted. “Occam’s razor.”

“Not wrong,” said the True. “But shallow. Like a puddle.”

Politicians and the media had taken to parroting opinions like these. There had been a surprising groundswell of schadenfreude at the plight of scientists.

“We once saw the world as you do,” the aliens had explained in a famous interview. “Then we learned that there was a deeper reality.”

They insisted that sometime around the Renaissance, humankind had taken a wrong turn. Prayer worked in the Middle Ages, miracles were common, and a bag of saint’s bones had power. We should believe more, not less.

The aliens had announced themselves from every TV in the world. A simple magic, they told our leaders, as they popped up at secret meetings, in secure bunkers, in bathrooms. Something anyone could learn to do.

The Shadow was remorseless. “Textbooks only the clever can understand, ever more expensive machines for these rituals, endless theories. This is what you called physics.”

Of course talk like this was nonsense. Science found out how the world worked, but it was hard work, and the aliens had told us we didn’t need to bother.

“What was wrong with steam engines and horses?” the True asked, almost sadly.

Jacobson did not answer. He had glimpsed the future and it did not include him.

“Anyway,” concluded the Shadow. “Most of your kind preferred things the way they were.”

It wouldn’t happen all at once, but in a generation or two, their best minds would be wrangling over alchemy. They had traveled too far and too fast. Imagine if they had gotten loose in the universe.

Soon, the cloaked alien starship could slip away.