Hello again! It's Matt Gemmell here, writing to you from fair Edinburgh in Scotland.
This is issue 28 of my Once Upon A Time series of free short stories. Your story is just below. If you'd prefer to read this on the web instead, you can do so here.
There are a lot of books, movies, TV shows and so on where humanity faces an intelligent existential threat. The stories are about all kinds of things, some of our own making and some not. But for all that creative diversity, there are very few types of protagonist to save the day. You’re probably picturing the same kind of person that I am, because we’ve both consumed so much of that media during our lives.
Disproportionately male, disproportionately white, and usually disproportionately military. Uniforms and muscles and guns. Arguably I’ve even contributed to that cluster myself, though my people do at least veer away from the average in a few key ways. Even so, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if perhaps the ideal heroes for a global threat might still be woefully under-represented in our stories even today.
Without further ado, here's this week's story.
The worst part was probably their limited range, because it let us see what was coming. With social media, we could see from halfway around the world.
The first shaky videos, taken on mobile phones, came from Nepal. It wasn’t like in the movies, because the quality of the footage was eerily good. There was no question as to what we were seeing, and even the deniers — with their cries of it all just being computer-generated effects to terrify the public — were believers within the first few hours.
We called them the Grid, because that was the only word we heard from one of the people in a village that was overrun, live on camera. Just that one word, and then the woman became the same as everyone else around her. Seemingly paralysed where she stood, a look of relaxed amazement on her face as her higher brain functions were suspended. The creatures swarmed past, seemingly not interested in our bodies once we’d been neutralised.
The expected things were tried. Long-range strikes, including a nuclear attack by both China and India within the first day. Russia followed, then the United States, France, Britain, and then everyone with capability. Low-yield tactical weapons in most cases, until we saw that their shielding technology made them impervious. Then we tried city-busters. No effect, except the fallout.
The Grid themselves seem to breathe our atmosphere just fine. They don’t carry weapons. They’re approximately humanoid in form, slate grey, about seven feet tall and alarmingly fast. Their faces are rudimentary. We’ll all be having bad dreams about those faces for the rest of our lives.
We still know very little about them. We believe they landed quietly in the Himalayas, and spread from there. It’s still unclear whether their intention was to attack, but the distinction quickly became academic. We don’t know how long they were here before we encountered them. We don’t know where they came from, or what they wanted.
What we do know is that they are a telepathic species, and probably have at least a limited form of shared consciousness. We also know that their cognitive processes are radically different from our own. They are much more ordered, uniform, and focused. We also know that their telepathy, intentionally or otherwise, is contagious.
When a human being comes within a certain distance of one of them, we experience the brief impression of a vast, abstract, intricate grid in three dimensions. We believe it’s our subjective interpretation of their shared consciousness. It’s completely incompatible with our own relatively chaotic brain structure — so much so that it makes our own thought process impossible. It immediately subdues us, pushing us into a state like a trance or even a coma. No memories of that state exist. There are no known ways to shield ourselves from the effect, and we’re powerless to resist it.
Most of us, at least.
The breakthrough came when the Grid reached the orphanage on the outskirts of Chengdu. It was an orphanage of a very special kind, unfortunately all too prevalent in some areas of the world. The little girl was sitting on a patch of straw-like yellowed grass, repeatedly tapping the top of a bright pink ball. She was oblivious to the approach of the creatures; to the screams, and then the silence, progressing in waves. When one of the Grid came within a few metres of her, the creature acted like its spine had been severed — it slumped to the ground with no warning. Analysis of CCTV footage seems to show that it even stopped breathing.
The same pattern was repeated in isolated pockets around the world. Because of the internet, and especially social media again, it took almost no time at all to put the pieces together. The first insight came from an Instagram account with an anonymous name, leaving a comment on someone else’s video.
It’s that autistic kid.
The child was not, in fact, autistic, but the general idea was correct. Governments collated data from urban surveillance as well as online, and the conclusion was inescapable. The Grid’s contagious, stupefying telepathy didn’t work on most types of neurodivergent individuals. ADHD, autistic spectrum disorders, psychotics of certain kinds, and a small subset of traumatic brain injury patients were all immune. Even more importantly, their presence seemed to amount to a counterattack, rendering any Grid nearby unconscious and possibly even dead.
Entire waves of the invaders broke like the tide against an outcropping, then turning around in immediate retreat. They retrieved or disposed of every one of their incapacitated or dead, somehow; the bodies vanished. Ultimately, only thirty-eight hours after the first sighting, something that must have been a vessel was seen to rise from Everest and disappear into the upper atmosphere. We were unable to track it past the lunar orbital shell. It has not returned.
Coordinated brain imaging studies are underway, in case they come back. Trauma counselling is in progress worldwide for those people who were our saviours, often without being able to understand or at least emotionally process and accept the experience they had. And attitudes have changed.
The orphanage in Chengdu, which in reality was an appalling but mundane nightmare — a sanitarium for the different, seen as a burden to society and a shame to families — has become a monument in every sense of the word. A place of origin for human resistance to a sudden and overwhelming threat.
The little girl remains nonverbal and almost entirely unaware of the world around her. She wants little more than to play with the ball, in her own way, and to be in a warm and quiet place. They wanted to give her a medal during a ceremony, but they mercifully decided against it. Instead, they made a statue, and it features the ball too. Copies of it exist in most capital cities now.
She has no idea, and she never will. But she — and others like her — is the reason we still exist.
That's all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. You can reply to this email if you'd like to share any thoughts or questions; I'd love to hear from you. You can find me on Twitter too.
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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.