"We are like salt, from earth," he says the first time, a cloaked figure that stands forward from the others, in the shadow of their ship, on the edge of the African plain. It's a male, the biologists unanimously agree. He is bipedal and has long, thin claws that remind too many of Freddy; none of the hundreds of reporters draw near.
The claws are too long to obey the Golden Ratio, the biomathematicians say, and wonder what insights they can give us. Perhaps a deeper understanding of the universal constants, perhaps a different way of looking at the fundamental basis of math entirely. But they do not share; they only ask for us to respect their land, a few small enclosures on various continents that they pay various few governments generously for, though not in the advanced technology they surely hoped for.
The line is studied and debated endlessly. 'Salt? of/from earth?,' flies across chatrooms, research labs, thinktanks. In the public, it becomes a greeting: "We are all salt of the Earth," the President starts in his State of the Union; in the military, it becomes a curse: "Those fuckers think they're going to salt our Earth?". In academia, the scientists are as divided as the rest of the world, with as many hypotheses as there are stars.
Was it the shared carbon-based biological structures they were referring to that made it so that they could easily consume the same resources we did? Was it a psychological statement on how they saw themselves, plentiful and common, an essential part of everything?
Then, the Tarkin incident, which taught us two very important lessons.
Fifteen military cameras observed a jeep crashing through the fence that had been the separation between the two species. Five spy cams, previously smuggled into the enclosure, caught various footage of the young men shooting indiscriminately through the compound, yelling out xenophobic slurs. Most of the damage was superficial, as the aliens knew enough to hide from the bullets, but two of the xenos were less fortunate.
They had been walking through the streets and were unfortunate enough — or distracted enough — to step out in front of the charging jeep; the footage reveals that the male never saw it coming and was thrown fifteen feet by the initial impact. His cloak was torn away, giving us the first look of their translucent torsos, their arrowlike heads, their long, long claws. The humans brought the jeep to a screeching stop, and as the female stood there, emptied their clips into her fallen companion. Around the world, analysts and advisors watched the blood flow — red, of course, because of the hemoglobin.
And then, when the footage leaked, the world saw it too.
When the male died, the female collapsed, registering no signs of life on the biomonitors, even though she was completely uninjured. It was an effect we would only come to understand much, much later, but it was the most important thing learned in early contact.
The second lesson was that they could be killed with conventional force.
"We will be the salt sown across the fields of Earth," he says, precisely five years after the Tarkin encounter. With each claw, he casts a fistful of dull crystals before him. There are no reporters now, and the world watches through the lens of a single videocamera placed five hundred yards away.
His gesture is unmistakable and his words leave no room for misinterpretation; everyone understands the mal-intent. After the xenophobic incidents, the widely broadcast protests, and the gradually aggressive border skirmishes, there were few that didn’t think a struggle was inevitable, an open struggle to establish the dominant species of the planet.
They were never caught unprepared again, after the first loss of life. When a lone pilot in a small, single—engine Piper made it through the military blockade and crashed into what the analysts thought was a school in one of their towns in Asia, they saw it coming and evacuated the building. As soon as the fire stopped, they started rebuilding the school, right over the plane and the unfortunate pilot. The next day, there was no sign it had ever happened. We never had a chance to negotiate for the return of the body.
When the President decided it was too dangerous to have an exo-town in America and ordered the military to "gently but promptly" relocate Colony 6, the soldiers reported finding nothing but buildings; the aliens had taken everything that could be moved and vanished sometime during the night before. In another unmistakable gesture, all the cameras and sensors we felt that we had so intelligently smuggled in had stopped broadcasting during the night.Containment
, the committee on military affairs recommended. No one knew what they could do, except that they could do things we couldn’t. In the words of a maligned but honest defense official, “We simply don’t know what we didn’t know.” And in that atmosphere, no one wanted to be the first to commit troops to what could easily be a snipe hunt — or significantly worse, a massacre. The various world leaders agreed, even the most militaristic, and the blockades were doubled or tripled in strength, with walls built, guns pointing in, jet fighters continuously on standby.
It was a week later when we collectively realized that our blockades had the same effect as trying to bail out the Titanic with a child’s toy bucket. Civilians from every single part of the world — the first reports came from Brazil, the Pacific Northwest, New South Wales, the Alps, and the Serengeti, simultaneously — reported seeing single Xenos stalking through the land. It was always only one, and many called it a ruse to draw us away from their towns, towns that still went through their normal schedules. At first, we ignored it, until the secondary reports came in, a day or two after the first sightings.
Where they went, everything
Our best scientists confirmed the practical findings, slowly piercing together how it happened. Everywhere they had been, there was a zone of death in the ecosystem. A biological weapon, a parasite or virus of some sort, some suggested, but the biologists didn’t agree — preliminary studies indicated no infections or foreign presences. Then someone put a slide of the Brazilian fern cells under a microscope and we saw the cytorrhysis and crenation, and we finally, bitterly, understood the meaning behind the alien’s words.
They weren’t just a declaration of war; they were a blueprint of the exact actions they would take.
The cells died, you see, because of the pressure difference. They had learned how to locally affect the osmotic pressure, and twisted it so that the outside was significantly more concentrated than inside the cells. The water floods, out, the cells collapse, and the organism dies.
We knew the basics — we had known for years the application of it and used salt water, sometimes, to kill weeds. We knew how important it was to keep the balance of salt in our bodies. But this weaponization
of a chemical property itself, this ability to effect such changes and then simply walk away; it was something we could never counter.
We couldn’t just roll over and die, of course. But when we attacked, as one, globally, there was nothing there, again. The tanks rolled into empty buildings, the bombs fell on ghost towns that no longer held the Xenos that we had seen walking through the streets days before.
And then the reports came: they were coming closer and closer to our major cities, our population centers. The hearts of our countries...
“We are,” he says, “the salt of the Earth,” His skull is now round instead of flat, his hands still long and thin, but with stubby fingers instead of claws, his chest pale instead of translucent. He stands before the United Nations and smiles, and it is a chilling smile, lacking any grace whatsoever.
They walk amongst us now, absorbed into the waters of humanity, and it is very, very hard to tell the difference between us.
They have won.