Author: David Barber
“I’m not asking you,” cried the small grey. “I’m telling you!”
The other, droopingly tall and thin, as befitted one of its great age, made a not while I’m eating gesture.
“No, listen. They bury them in the ground. Or set fire to them.”
Greys could be unpredictable. Sometimes facts disturbed them, the Elder was aware of this and remained cautious.
“How do you know all this?”
A curious junior had observed a crowd of natives gathered round an excavation at a church. Returning in darkness, it was horrified to uncover what they had been doing there.
The Elder considered the ambitious young grey. They had been on missions elsewhere and had dealt with novelty before, but this was a difficult notion to accept.
“Perhaps it was an isolated incident. An aberration.”
But the grey knew more. “Once we knew what to look for, there was evidence everywhere.”
The Elder was still not sure. In the long years spent en route to this world, it had studied their broadcasts. Admittedly, there was much violence, but it always assumed the victims were revived. Wasn’t that what hospitals were for? Besides, those damaged in one broadcast often appeared unharmed in others. No, there must be some mistake.
“We have probed their technology,” insisted the grey. “And their anatomy, yet we are no closer to understanding them. Perhaps this is the clue.”
The grey greatly admired cleverness, but this was because it was still young, before doubts set in.
“I’m sure it has something to do with, you know,” the grey lowered its voice. “Death.”
Their own kind had always been long-lived. And thanks to science, even the crew of that first saucer, smashing into a remote desert, were rebirthed at home with only a few memories lost.
“Death, you say?” the Elder ventured.
“Could it be that their minds, their experiences, just vanish?”
To an Elder this idea was particularly unsettling. Distressing even.
Yet the grey, barely centuries old, embraced the notion. “We must ask ourselves how such a thing can be. How they can rush headlong to the grave, yet seem inured to it. Whether it is this brevity which makes them what they are?”
There were unanswered questions, and more data was always good. The Elder considered. Perhaps it was time for further field-work, for closer observations. The grey could be kept busy in charge of that.
When the relief mission arrived some decades later, the Elder lectured their replacements.
“Be steadfast in your disguises,” it cautioned. “Unflesh solely if the discomfort grows too great.”
Common mistakes were lights in the sky, confusing the deceased with those asleep, and feelings of pity.
Whatever they had been told at home, said the Elder, the mission had now changed. They must study those mayfly lives, look for answers at funerals, ponder ashes, heaped earth, the coffin and its perplexing cargo.
While the departing saucer was spinning up, one small grey, listless and drooping despite its youth, said a curious thing to those who succeeded it.
“What little you might glean of death will be too much. Venturing so close to oblivion, you must expect night terrors.”
“And for your own sake, do not learn their names,” it warned. “They will break your hearts.”
Tight and tidy. A good story, well-spun.