Some time ago, I got the germ of an idea for a science fiction story after thinking about the ridiculousness of aliens invading the Earth for its resources. Basically, most raw resources that aliens could find on Earth are also present in other places in the Solar System…without a big gravity well to get down into, and without pesky native species to fight. With our limited space capabilities, we would have to sit here and watch as all the asteroids and moons in the system got stripped. I sat on this idea half-written for a while, until — during the COVID-19 pandemic — I realized something: this is a story about the climate crisis, and it includes some of the feelings I’ve been grappling with about our society’s declining ability to engage with the problems facing us. So, I’ve finished the story, and shared it with a few people.
The general feedback I got from early readers was that, while this is a neat exploration of an idea in the vein of Clarke or Asimov, it lacks character-driven development. And I agree…but I couldn’t think of a good way to add that without it seeming pasted on (or making the story completely about the character-driven problems, and having the alien invasion be the thing pasted on) and avoid muddling the whole point behind the story. So, since I think the lack of character-driven action will make a magazine unlikely to pick it up, I’ve decided to post the story in full here:
“Can I see, Mommy?”
“No,” said Terry. She hunched closer to the monitor for a moment, then leaned over to scribble a note on her pad. Hailey’s day care let out early that day, but her parents were still engrossed in their work at the observatory. So they split their attention.
“Hmm?” Dan glanced up. “Oh, sure. Here you go.” He hefted his daughter above the edge of the desk.
“Daniel! I don’t want her to see her whole future evaporate!”
“She’s too young to know.” Dan’s brow furrowed. “Besides, it’d be more like her great-, great-, great-, …”
“That’s not helping, Dan.”
On the monitor, a repeating loop of sixteen false-color frames showed the telescope’s view of Neptune. Small sparks flitted among the dance of moons. In a time-compressed view spanning several days, some touched down and lifted off. Some of them dove into the outer atmosphere of the ice giant itself.
Hailey flapped an awkward toddler hand at the keyboard. Dan grunted and put her down.
“I’mna gonna evvaprate!” she protested.
“Will anybody even recognize this as a threat?” he asked. “I mean, there are a few groups doing asteroid mining at a proof-of-concept level…but getting to stuff around Neptune is decades, maybe centuries, away.”
Terry rubbed the bridge of her nose. The alien craft had been in the Neptunian system for months. By now, it was clear – from albedo changes of the moons and careful examination of the changes to the aliens’ orbits – that they were mining and removing material. Water and nitrogen ice from Triton, hydrogen and methane from Neptune’s cloud layers – all valuable resources for a spacefaring civilization.
“Try asking that question again when the population hits twenty billion,” she sighed. “Exponential growth can’t continue forever.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure somebody will figure out a way to speak to them. They might not even know the Earth is populated yet. They’re just making do with what they find.” He tapped his pen against the monitor. “Look at how these orbits rendezvous with one another.”
Terry caught Hailey’s arm as she chased a dust bunny beneath the desk. “What about them?”
“There’s one that dips into Neptune’s cloud layer. Then it comes up and meets this one, which flies by Triton. A third is out here in a distant retrograde orbit…”
“That’s what I’m thinking. It’s all a finely tuned conveyor belt. Or a pump…pulling gases out of the atmosphere, powered by siphoning the kinetic energy of the moons themselves.” Dan sat back, crossing his arms.
“You sort of have to appreciate it,” said Terry. “I guess.”
Dan shrugged. “Somebody will figure out how to talk to them.”
“…and in math class we learned the fours times table, want to hear them? Four, eight, twelve, sixteen, twenty -”
“That’s great, cupcake!” Dan smiled. “You know, that’s almost like how they tried to say hello to the aliens.”
“That’s not ‘hello,’ Daddy, that’s just numbers.”
“Numbers might be the only thing they and we both understand.”
“So we just say, ‘four eight twelve’ to them?”
“Four eight twelve, honey,” said Terry, walking into the room. “Why don’t you go put your school things away in your room now?”
After Hailey started clomping up the stairs, Terry lowered her voice. “Is it confirmed?”
“Yeah,” Dan nodded. “DSN lost telemetry from all spacecraft around Jupiter at about 19:50 UTC. We got images of the alien vehicles in Jupiter orbit shortly after.”
“Images like we’ve had so far, or…images images?”
“I’m sure they’ll break the internet in a few hours.”
Terry whistled. “And the denudation of Ganymede? How long till that starts?”
“Dunno,” said Dan. “And, of course, no contact from the craft yet. I’m not feeling as optimistic about the ‘Greeting’ they broadcast.”
“You and me, both.”
“How close you think they’ll get before the politicians really start to freak out?”
Terry shrugged. “You know what’ll finally get the people in power riled up about it?”
“Now we know that someone more powerful is out there. But they’re strangling us off, so that we’ll never reach their level. We can see them, but we can’t touch them. That’s got to drive the President berserk.”
“That, or it’ll just make her feel powerless.” Dan scratched his cheek absently. “But we’ve got to start talking about this.”
“But we are talking about the eventual extinction of all life on Earth. Do you follow me, Senator?”
“I do, Doctor. My understanding is that you are talking about an event several million years in our future.”
“Not even that far out. The population is just growing too fast. We’ll need those resources. If not our children’s children, then their children – it could be as few as–”
Senator Alvarez held up his hands. “I know, Dan – can I call you Dan? I’ve heard the arguments. And, look, I’m not unsympathetic to the idea. Safeguarding our future is an important part of my job. The fact of the matter is, even if I wanted to set up a crash program to…whatever..our party wore those arguments out on carbon policy back in the 2020s. We had those same earnest, concerned scientists like yourself, Dan, back then.”
“This is a different…”
“What I’m trying to tell you, Dan, is that my fellow committee members aren’t going to give you a fair hearing. We’ve got wage stagnation for the better part of a decade, trade issues abroad, our corporate constituents looking at monthly performance metrics, the fall in agri-conglomerate production – lots of pressing concerns that we have to deal with first. The governor is personally giving me hell about refugees from coastal land loss in the Gulf states. There will be a time, but this isn’t it. I can bring up your requests, but this year you’re going to have to work with the resources you’ve already got.”
“…so, clearly, this isn’t the end of the world. Whew!” The host spun in her chair to face a new camera. “Here to tell me why this is the end of the world is my next guest, Dr. Daniel Moreno. He’s one of the first astronomers to recognize the aliens and realize what they were doing in our solar system. Dr. Moreno, welcome to the show.”
“I’m glad to be here, Katherine.”
“You’re kind of a bummer, aren’t you? There I was, ten years ago, and you blew my mind with the discovery of alien life. Woah! Now you’re running around telling me that this is an invasion fleet and we’re all gonna die.”
“Well, Katherine, the thing is – this was always an invasion fleet. We’re not going to die, though–”
“So problem solved, right? Great work, doctor!”
Dan smiled gamely through audience chuckles. “We’re not going to die, because the aliens aren’t after killing us. It’s too expensive to come all the way down to Earth and blast us all in person. But it’s relatively cheap to get raw materials from the moons of the outer solar system. And we’ll lose those resources.”
“We’ve still got the resources on the Earth. And the Earth is where I care about things happening.”
“That’s exactly the issue, Katherine.” Dan picked a studio camera and stared straight into the lens. “We’ll have only the resources on the Earth. Our population is growing, we need more stuff, and we’re never going to be able to get what we need anywhere else. We’ll be okay for a few more generations, and then we’ll run out. There were visionaries and space programs in the past who saw that the long-term survival of humanity depended on putting sustained human populations on other worlds, and started projects to do so. But with the aliens, even that won’t save us from eventual extinction.”
“Wow.” The host tilted her head toward the audience. “I told you he was a bummer.” Over some scattered laughter, she returned to face Dan. “Here’s what I want to know: We won the World Wars. We landed on the Moon. We are solving climate change right now. Can’t we beat alien invaders, too?”
“I’m really glad you asked, Katherine. It’s our future that’s under threat, but our best chance at survival is if we act now. Every nation on Earth has to retool itself to stake a foothold for humanity out in the solar system. We just have to get enough presence so it’s too tough for the aliens to dislodge us, and we can secure the resources out there for our future. This is going to be the biggest, most expensive thing humans have ever done. So it’s going to take all the people, and all the corporations, to get all the politicians on board, in every country.”
“Sounds like a failsafe plan.” Laughter again. “Dr. Moreno, everybody! When we come back, a surprise guest!”
As the cameras pulled back and the audience applauded, Katherine leaned in to shake Dan’s hand. “Well done,” she told him. “This is really gonna keep me up at night. Can you hang out in the green room after the show to talk a little more?”
“Sure,” Dan stammered, as someone behind the blinding lights caught Katherine’s eye.
“Great. Hey, will you go over there where my producer’s waving? The next bit has a llama, and we’re supposed to clear off this part of the stage.”
“Von Neumann machines, Dad.” Hailey dumped her book bag out on the break room table. “We learned about geometric series today and all the examples were self-replicating machines. It’s all anybody can ever talk about, and I’m sick of it.”
Daniel, fiddling with a coffee stirrer, snorted. “You could practically run for Congress with that platform.”
“I mean it, Dad!” She stalked over to the couch and opened up a game on her phone.
“Well, do some other homework first, before you get to your math, then.” Dan carried his coffee out of the break room and plunked it down by his console.
“Hey,” said Terry, not looking up. “She back from school?”
“She’s sick of Von Neumann machines.”
Terry’s snort echoed her husband’s.
“That exposure finish yet?”
“Oh, they’re definitely stripping Ceres now.” Terry opened a new image. “This is the best view we’ve got of a mining vehicle.”
“Wow,” Dan said. “It’s like a lunar lander crossed with an oil rig. At the speed they operate, it’ll be a couple months before all Ceres’ ice is gone, right?”
“Yep.” Terry pulled a face. “What do we even do at this point? We’d better start population control, like right now, and recycle everything and hope that we can live off the Earth alone for all of eternity.”
“Look, we’ve clearly got to do something. So, we will. We must. It’s a matter of…well, of defending the future of the entire human race.”
“Such a cliche,” she shook her head. “What a way to have first contact.”
“Yeah. You’ve said that before.”
“I fucking hate Von Neumann machines.”
“Me, too. Hmm…we have a machine of our own not so far from Ceres. If we’re looking for a way to make the inner system seem like a less appealing investment…”
A scientific probe studying an asteroid received a transmission from Earth. The transmission contained a new set of command macros.
When the time came to execute the first instruction, the probe reoriented itself and started firing its ion thrusters. In a few days, it left its tenuous orbit around the asteroid and was zipping along in a wide heliocentric orbit.
After several months, the probe had built up a lot of speed.
It careened into the path of an alien craft on its way through the asteroid belt. The encounter lasted only moments, but every telescopic eye the Earth could spare focused on it. The targeting was precise: a collision would ensue.
Public debate raged when news sites broke the story. Some prayed that the alien craft was robotic, not populated by a crew. Some felt vindictive over the loss of all Europa’s ice. Some railed about a few renegade scientists putting the Earth on the line without input from the enfranchised population. Others hoped that the alien reaction – any reaction at all – would satisfy their curiosity.
When the moment came, the silent alien craft hopped deftly out of the way, and then the Deep Space Network lost contact with the little Earth spacecraft.
“Hey Mom, Dad,” Hailey’s message chirped out from the office console. “…we just declared our majors today! I want to tell you about it. Give me a call back when you can. Bye!”
“Business,” guessed Terry.
“Marketing,” Dan speculated.
“What’s happening with these comets?”
“Huh?” said Dan.
“These comets. Here, see?” She pointed at her monitor. “We didn’t have this cluster of highly eccentric, short-period comets before. Now we do.”
“I wonder what their perihelion is.”
“Umm…” Terry called up a program and fed it some new inputs. “Wow. Inside Mercury. In about a decade.”
Dan sat back. He crossed his arms, drumming his fingers against his bicep. “What do you think…getaway vehicle?”
“Maybe. Hmm…apply the right delta-vee at perihelion…that might set them up nicely for a low-thrust trajectory to get the rest of the way out. Head off to Proxima, or whatever’s next on their hit list.”
“We should get our network involved, think about what we can do to cut short that clean getaway. I’ll call the Senator. You talk to our colleagues.”
“You should try Katherine’s new producer, too. We got lots of attention last time.”
The space station became an international construction yard. Materiel blasted into orbit, capsules with astronauts-turned-construction-workers shuttled up and down, and steadily, vehicles took shape. They could prevent the solar system’s resources from disappearing with the aliens, said the pundits. They would defend Earth to the last, said the politicians. They should launch an expeditionary force to secure all the inner planets, said the war hawks, their ire temporarily directed out from Earth. If the solar system’s resources were worth traveling interstellar distances for, they ought to be worth defending!
The aliens noticed the activity, and pushed a small asteroid into an orbit that would intersect the station. Engineers on Earth boosted the space station out of the way. It was less elegant than the last-second dodge the alien ship had performed years earlier, but the maneuver would save the station nonetheless.
Next time, the aliens sent a whole swarm of the solar system’s own rocks, fitted with obvious maneuvering engines.
Mission control saw it all coming. The astronauts made it down in time. Within six months, no spacecraft larger than a few hundred kilograms orbited the Earth.
“Now they’re on the fucking Moon?!” Dan exclaimed when he came into the house. The news was up on the wall monitor. The best telescopic views yet of alien strip-mining activity.
Terry swirled the double scotch in her glass. “They didn’t land on Mars, though, so we know what gravity wells are uneconomical for them. Guess this is probably the end.”
“I’m getting a beer.”
“Take all the easy stuff. Just abscond with it. Don’t waste any delta-vee. The Moon’s the last small body. We were too late.”
Hordes of alien craft converged from the outer solar system to clump around the packet of comets. None remained unaccounted for. Older machines broke themselves down into new configurations. Colossal tanks of water and volatile chemicals drifted adjacent to gargantuan pallets of minerals and metals. Superstructures and gossamer loops extended to bind everything together.
Precisely when the assemblage swung around the Sun, engines fired. A gravitational assist: one last theft of energy. The co-opted comets were still in orbit of the Sun, but now their aphelion just poked into interstellar space. Days later, expansive solar sails unfurled. Simple ion thrusters engaged, expending some of the spoils to propel the aliens and their plunder on a fifty-year getaway run.
Hailey’s face smirked out from the wall monitor. “You know, Dad, the world isn’t fundamentally different from the way it was twenty-five years ago. People still have lives, and needs, and we have to take care of each other.”
“I know,” Dan sighed. “I know.”
“So I guess I just don’t have as much faith in…”
“The world didn’t explode, Daniel,” Terry broke in from the next room. “We might not have access to as many resources two hundred years from now, but we can steward what we have.”
“Are you kidding?” Dan tapped his fist irritably against his thigh. “It didn’t explode yet. Everything on Earth just got monumentally more valuable. That means the opposite of stability. Any day now, I bet the nukes start flying.”
“Dad! Don’t be so melodramatic!”
Dan didn’t have anything to say for a moment.
Quietly: “I hope…”
“That’s right,” came Terry’s voice. She was leaning against the doorjamb, looking back at Daniel. “People can engineer a future for themselves. We still have Mercury and Mars, and clever engineers. We just have to be careful.”
“I hope we are,” Dan said.
“So do I.”
“It might not be enough.”
“In the meantime,” Hailey said, “we’ll just have to live.”