Escape Pod 705: Rule of Three (Part 1 of 3)

Rule of Three (Part 1 of 3)

By Lawrence M. Schoen

Popular culture failed to prepare me for first contact. Countless starships bristling with canon and rail gun turrets did not fill the skies. The aliens didn’t flood our television and radio bands with messages of conquest or world peace or miracle cures. They didn’t present themselves to the United Nations or to any government leaders. None of that. I was sitting in my condo in a suburb of Washington, D.C. when my mother phoned me from California. It was a Sunday afternoon. I’d just ordered a pizza and I’d planned to watch the big game on my new television. But my mother was on the phone. She’d just had a call from her own mother in her tiny mountain village back in China.

An alien had landed.

I charged the plane ticket to my credit card and was on a plane to Beijing two hours later. I didn’t watch the big game and I never got to eat my pizza.

My father is an American who, fresh out of university, traveled to China, specifically Guizhou Province, to teach English. My mother was one of his students, a member of an ethnic minority known as the Miao people, who had left her tiny rural village on a scholarship as part of a poverty abatement program. They fell in love, moved back to the United States, and I was born. My maternal grandmother still lives in China, much as her ancestors did. She manages just fine without indoor plumbing or electricity. She’s never owned a computer or a cell phone or a television. She raised her daughter, my mother, in a house that clung to the side of a steep mountainside half a kilometer from the same river where, according to a third-hand report from her much younger albeit blind neighbor who did own a phone and had actually placed the call to my mother, a “funny-looking fellow fell from the sky in a giant pearl and was teaching the village’s children odd things.”

I grew up a child of two worlds, which led me to work for the US state department. Which is probably why my mother called me.

The US government didn’t know about any alien. Nor, as best as I could tell with a few oblique inquiries of my counterparts in Beijing, did the Chinese government. The only ones who knew that an alien was visiting Earth were my maternal grandmother, her blind neighbor, and no more than a dozen or so villagers and their barefoot children.

My mother had called me at noon. She passed along surprisingly good video shot by a local child on the blind neighbor’s cell phone. I could hear the kid’s laughing commentary as he panned back and forth capturing some trees along the riverbank before moving on to show the water and what looked like an enormous pearl floating there. The trees provided perspective. The pearl had to be at least two stories tall. It looked like nothing on Earth, and certainly nothing that had any business being in my grandmother’s backward village. Except that’s where it was. Not the place where an alien visitor, or an alien invader, would set down. There was nothing significant there, nothing of value, just a handful of people who—a lone cell phone notwithstanding—had never joined the modern world. Nothing but my grandmother.

In hindsight, maybe I should have passed the video on to my boss, turned the whole matter over to the state department. Probably. Except that thought didn’t occur to me until after my plane had taken off and I was on my way. Instead, some dumb ass heroic notion had sent me racing off to save my grandmother from some science fiction nightmare.

Eighteen hours later, I arrived in Beijing feeling like I was dying. I’d used an American carrier that had opted to serve prepackaged Chinese food including at least one packet that had sat on the tarmac too long and spoiled. An hour into the flight and I was ill, very ill. I’ve never been sicker. I spent most of my flying time locked in an airplane lavatory as the world’s worst case of food poisoning purged everything out of my body. I only managed to get back to my seat in time for landing. I wanted to die, but I had to get to my grandmother. With the help of the airline’s customer service and endless apologies for the food poisoning, I transferred to a domestic flight leaving for Guizhou four hours later. I’d been upgraded to first class with all the amenities, but couldn’t bear the thought of eating or drinking anything. Three hours later, just after 1 a.m. local time, I stopped to pick up my rental car. There was a message from Mrs. Liu, my grandmother’s blind neighbor, letting me know my mother had called ahead. My grandmother was expecting me and would have dinner waiting, no matter how late I arrived. The thought would have made me ill, but I had nothing left in my stomach. I hadn’t even touched the stash of chocolate chip granola bars I’d brought for energy along the walk and I knew I wouldn’t. I drove for three more hours to get as close as I could to the remote village where my grandmother lived. I hadn’t slept on either plane; I’d crossed twelve time zones and been awake for about thirty hours, and still had several hours of hiking along a starlit goat trail.

Near the end, the sun was just starting to climb above the mountains, chasing the darkness from the narrow valley. The long walk in the dark had made me feel better. Not healthy, mind you, but not like I wanted to die. As I walked up the path to my grandmother’s house I caught the scent of her sour fish soup and I thought it the most welcome aroma in the world. No sooner had my dear sweet grandmother seen me approaching her door then she ushered me in and set a bowl in front of me. I ate two servings, and with every taste of pickled chili, cabbage, tomato, and local fish I felt myself restored a bit more. I’d come home.

When I pushed back from the table, sated and feeling like a human being again, my grandmother said, “You look terrible. All that big city living is bad for you. You should eat real food.”

“Yes, grandmother,” I said. “Thank you for the soup. It was wonderful.”

That made her smile. She squeezed my hand. “Do not try to charm me, boy. You didn’t come so far just because you missed my cooking. You came because of the funny man, didn’t you?”

Before I could ask her about the “funny man,” she stood up and stepped through a hanging curtain that divided the space. Dutifully, I followed. Her entire house was one small room, smaller than my bedroom back home. One side was kitchen and workspace with a long table and a massive storage chest, the other her modest living area with her bed, a shelf, and a small lamp. There was no bathroom; all of that business took place outside. In one corner of the living area, she’d set up a cot for me, piled high with cloth blankets decorated with intricate designs of white and deepest blue.

“Sleep now. Travel makes us wise in time, but first it makes us stupid. Sleep off the stupid. We’ll talk when you’re rested.”

I was born in China, but I grew up in the west. I graduated from Stanford University in California with a bachelor’s in experimental psychology and earned a law degree at Harvard. I’ve studied under brilliant professors and met some of the smartest people in the world. None of them was ever wiser than my grandmother. I went to sleep.

Blame the food poisoning. Blame the jet lag. Blame both, if you like, but I slept about twenty hours. That’s only an estimate because my phone had run out its battery while I slept and my grandmother had no need of clocks. It was still dark, but a faint light came from the other side of the wall hanging. I pulled it aside and found my grandmother tending to a large pot of fermenting leaves. She was making indigo. It didn’t matter that more than ninety percent of the world had switched over to synthetic, mass-produced indigo decades earlier. This was the way she’d learned to do it seventy years ago, as her family had always done it going back for centuries since they’d first come to this valley. And to hear her tell it, they’d done it that same way even before then.

Saying nothing, I moved to the kitchen and peered into her cupboards until I found what I needed to brew us both tea. I filled two cups and crossed the few steps to her workspace. She paused to accept her cup, sip, and savor the tea for a moment, then returned to making indigo. I drank my tea and waited. Back home, I’d have been impatient. I’d have seen waiting for this old woman to be overindulgent and a waste of my time. But that was half a world away, a different culture, and arguably a different time. This was my grandmother’s world. Simply being there somehow allowed all of the rush in me to drain away. I didn’t worry or fidget. I spent the time studying her face as she worked, the myriad lines and wrinkles in her skin as the years shrunk in upon her, the bright light that still burned in her eyes, the barest tip of her tongue peeking out between her lips as she concentrated on her task.

In time she set aside the pot of leaves, smacked her lips, and picked up her tea. “You have questions,” she said. “You are the most inquisitive boy I have ever known. Ask them.”

“Why do you call him the funny man?”

She snorted, almost spilling her cup. “Because he is funny. Don’t ask stupid questions.”

“People can be funny in many different ways. I wasn’t there to see, so how was he funny?”

“Well, for one thing, he was naked.”

“That’s odd,” I said, “But I wouldn’t have called that funny.”

“That’s not the funny part. But if he’d worn clothes I wouldn’t have seen it.”

“Seen what?”

“He didn’t have a penis,” she said.

I must have blushed because she added, “I thought living in America made you more worldly. Anyway, maybe ‘man’ isn’t the best way to describe him, but he didn’t have the curves of a woman. So, yes, I thought that was funny.”

“Mrs. Liu told Mother that you said the man fell from the sky in a pearl.”

“That’s right.”

My grandmother had always been very literal. “How could a man, even a funny man, fit inside a pearl?”

“Oh, well, it was a very large pearl, larger than this house. I know you must have seen the pictures Mrs. Liu sent.”

“And you’re sure it wasn’t an airplane or a helicopter?”

“I told you, it was a pearl, glossy and slightly off-white. It couldn’t have been a plane or a helicopter. It didn’t make any noise. Not a sound.”

“How did you happen to see it?”

“I was on my way down to the river to carry water back. It crossed the sky and then fell silently into the river. I saw it. I kept on to the water’s edge and by then the funny man had waded to the bank and was teaching the children.”

“What children?”

“Some of the village children help me carry water back up here. They wait for me down there with their own buckets. But they’d abandoned their buckets and instead gathered around the funny man in the tall grass. He was talking to them, linking his fingers in theirs. He did this with several of them in turn, just for a few moments. Then they’d both laugh and the child would start plucking up blades of grass, causing them to light up and float up and away.”

“What do you mean ‘light up and float away’?”

She scowled. “It was just what I said. I didn’t say it made sense.”

“Then what happened?”

“I called to the children to stop goofing off and come help me with the water. They did, and the funny man just looked at me. But I had to get back to my dye work and turned to come back up the mountain. But I thought it was important, so later in the day when I went to visit Mrs. Liu I told her about it—”

“And she phoned Mother, who phoned me,” I said.

She scowled again. “You interrupted me. You don’t come into my house and interrupt me. Ever.”

“I’m sorry, Grandmother,” I said. And I was.

I retraced my steps partway down the dirt path I’d taken earlier, turning right at a branch point I’d missed on the way up. The left-hand route would eventually lead back to where I’d parked my rental car; the path I now walked took me around to the river. The water came into view while I was still high above it. There, sitting a third submerged in the current, just as my grandmother had described it, floated an immense two-story pearl. It gleamed rather than glistened. Looking closer I realized that the water did not go around it but rather appeared to flow through it, as if the massive pearl wasn’t there at all, just a bizarre holograph in this place that saw so little technology.

The path turned, pulling the river from my view. I continued my descent and heard peals of laughter, high-pitched and innocent. Soon, the path curved again and I arrived at a small sward that continued on a short distance and ended at the shore. I could see the pearl again, closer and even larger than before, but I ignored it. Sitting in the tall grass, giggling and carrying on were seven children ranging from three to eight years of age. Seated in their midst was my grandmother’s funny man. He appeared naked and pale, almost the same shade as the giant pearl in the water behind him but without the luster. An alien.

The children ignored me. The three oldest seemed to be plying the alien with pieces of fruit and what looked like an earthen jar of warm beer. The rest were engaged in some game that involved plucking blades of grass, breathing upon them, and tossing them into the air where the wind carried them up and away. The blades of grass seemed to catch the light as they rose, sparkling. Except, there was no wind, and this portion of the valley was still in shadow. The alien rose, tousled the heads of several of the children, took a swig from the clay jar, and stepped toward me. Now that it was standing, I could confirm that other detail my grandmother had shared. Its overall body shape was masculine, long and lean like a swimmer. The junction where its legs joined its torso was smooth and sexless. No bellybutton either, as it happens.

“Part of you is dark with unlife,” it said. “I can barely see you.”

It took me a moment to process the words. I don’t know, maybe I was expecting English or Mandarin. Instead, it had spoken in the same language of the Miao people that my grandmother had grown up speaking. The language of this valley, of the children who had stopped laughing and were watching us intently. The language I had learned from my mother as a child and studied as an adult from a university professor who, with western arrogance, had called it Hmong. I understood all the words, but they didn’t fit together meaningfully.

I turned my gaze to the children, paying attention this time, focusing on the impossibility my mind had rejected at first glance. The blades of grass they plucked and cast away, they actually glowed. They actually floated.

“What are the children doing?” I asked.

The alien smiled. “They are altering the grass. A simple trick I taught them in exchange for teaching me their language.”

“How did you do this? And what exactly are they doing to the grass?”

It frowned. “I am sorry. These are worthy questions, but I lack the concepts to form them properly in your words. They are only children. I had hoped they might in time bring me to one of their parents, or bring an adult to me. Someone who could teach me more of your language.”

This was the opening. If not actually first contact, then first significant contact. “I’m an adult. Can I teach you?”

The alien sighed. “Not yet. Perhaps never. As I said, part of you is dark with unlife.”

“What is unlife?” I asked. Then added, “Which part?”

Instead of answering, the alien knelt alongside the oldest child, a boy, offering its hand, palm outward and fingers spread wide. The boy met it with his own and they interlaced their fingers. Both closed their eyes and leaned into the other until their foreheads touched. Only a moment passed. Both smiled, released the other’s fingers, and the alien stood and faced me again.

“Your clothing. Your shoes. And . . . something else, in your . . . pocket? Yes, in your pocket.”

I reached into my pants and pulled out my useless smartphone.

“That, yes. Dark with unlife.”

“Of course it’s not alive. It’s a phone.”

“You misunderstand. Not not alive. Unlife.”

“And my clothes?” I asked.

“More of the same. You are dim, difficult to perceive, and the clothes make it harder still. These children are bright.”

I looked down at my clothes. I’d worn top-of-the line cross-trainers because I knew the dirt paths on my grandmother’s mountain would have ruined my normal dress shoes. My slacks were khakis, polyester with a permanent crease. My shirt was a cotton/polyester blend, pale blue, long-sleeved, buttoned down the front, brass stays keeping the collar flat. I was the poster boy for the US State Department’s diversity program. In contrast, the children were dressed in simple, homespun shorts tied off with handmade rope. They wore shirts or open vests of the same material. Most of them were barefoot but a couple had sandals, crafted from the same hemp as the belts.

“I’m sorry,” I told it. “I don’t understand. They’re just clothes.”

“It is the Rule of Three,” it replied.

I shook my head.

“Your shirt. Did you make it?”

“Make it?”

“Did you weave it yourself?”

“No. I . . .”

“Did the individual who wove it also harvest the plants from which it was made?”

“I’m fairly certain they did not.”

“And was that person the same as the one who planted and tended those plants?”

“What’s your point?” I asked. “Probably dozens, even hundreds, of different people were involved in the manufacture of my shirt. The textile industry is broad and far-reaching. Especially when you factor in distribution and sales.”

The alien frowned. “I do not know many of those words. But consider the children’s clothing. Describe their origins. Did they make them?”

“Their parents probably did. Or they bartered with a neighbor for them, either finished goods or the materials to make them.”

It nodded at me and smiled. “If I make a thing, I am one and the thing is full of the life that I gave it. If I pass that thing to you, you are two, and the thing still feels its connection to me and so retains that life. If you give the thing to another, that person is three. The thing still holds the link to me, my life still resonates within it. The distance does not matter, but the number does. Three is the limit. Pass the thing I made on to a fourth person and it can no longer detect me. The connection is broken. Unlife rushes in to fill the void. As a result it cannot be easily perceived. It is dark, inert.”

I swallowed. “You’re describing virtually all manufactured goods. Everywhere.”

“Not everywhere, but yes, much of your world is dark, roiling with unlife. I’d feared finding any people at all. My time on your world is very brief, but I needed to speak with someone I could perceive. This valley has only a few specks of the dark. I came here and found these children. They brim with life. But not you, you appear dark to me.”

Inspiration struck and I began unbuttoning my shirt. The children giggled when I pulled it off and cast it aside. “Better?”

The alien smiled. “Much. You remain dim, but the dark does not cover you as it did before.”

I unlaced my shoes, removed them and my socks. I didn’t much care for children, certainly I had no desire to produce any of my own. But these were here and I’d learned to work with the tools at hand. I beckoned to one of the older children and bartered three promised granola bars for his vest which I wrapped into a crude kilt. Next I took off my pants and underwear, removed my fancy watch and my college ring. I left them all in a pile and stepped closer to the alien.

“And now?”

“Now I see you more clearly. You are still dim, your body darkened by unlife it has absorbed, but with each moment you improve.”

“Absorbed?” I thought of the last meal I’d had before leaving D.C., a burger grabbed at the airport moments before boarding my flight. Prepackaged beef patty, shipped frozen from some warehouse, stamped out on an assembly line probably hundreds of miles away. The same for the bun, the slice of processed cheese, the fries guaranteed grown from Idaho potatoes halfway across the country. How many hands had touched them, from cow and farm to the moment I ate them? Almost everything I’d eaten as an adult failed the alien’s Rule of Three. The same would be largely true of anyone living in any city in the world. The food that sustained them, that became their muscle and bone, that gave them life, all of that was unlife to the alien. Was that what it meant when it said it feared finding any people? Were the vast billions of the world dark to it? And if so, how was I only dim?

My head spun, and only part of it was the strange explanation of the alien. Only part was meeting an alien. I was also light-headed from jet lag and a need for more sleep and a mostly empty belly despite the glory of my grandmother’s soup and . . . the soup. Was that why the alien found me growing less dim? Had the food poisoning purge from my plane flight also rid my body of some of the effects of food that didn’t pass the Rule of Three? Did that apply to everything I put in or on my body? Not just food but all of my vitamins and supplements, any medicine I’d ever taken, aftershave and cologne. The particulars didn’t matter. Only the Rule of Three. “Right,” I said. “Absorbed. Got it.”

By some unspoken agreement all of the children got up to go. Each held a bit of light green fabric they’d somehow woven out of grass. They passed these to two of the older boys who caused the individual pieces to come together in seconds. The one who had loaned me his vest stepped up to me and presented a pair of faintly glowing shorts. I turned my back as I slid them up my legs and removed my makeshift loincloth. Then, waving goodbye and shyly saying farewell they ran off, whether to continue their play elsewhere or head to their respective homes I couldn’t say.

My shorts gleamed, a soft pulsating of light that beat in time to its own rhythm, faster than my heart’s. They felt . . . light.

“You will not fly away,” said the alien. “I did not teach them that.”

“But you could have?”

“Perhaps. I do not know the limitations of what they, or you, can learn. But it is likely.”

“What did you teach them?”

“Only external workings. To speak to the grass. To persuade it to change its nature.”

It was one thing to be standing around chatting with an alien, but something quite different to abandon all scientific rigor. Still . . . , “Grass can talk?”

It smiled. “No, not as we do. But all living things contain information. They know themselves and communicate that knowledge internally. May I show you?”

It closed the distance between us and offered me one of its hands, fingers spread. I hadn’t noticed before, but its little finger was actually a second thumb. I raised my own hand, lacing my fingers through with its five digits. There was a tingling sensation. Time stopped. There was a feeling I can only describe as what a cup must feel when it is full of tea, drunk from, then filled again. Then my hand was free and the alien took a step back. In that moment it stopped being just an alien. It had a name. My mind held the idea of speech sounds that I couldn’t pronounce, sounds that didn’t exist in English or Chinese or any language on Earth. A single syllable that came close to sounding like Foom, a Miao name that meant “bless.”

“Ah, so much better,” it said. “Not surprising, you have vocabulary and concepts the children lacked. To resume, no, grass does not speak. That is but a metaphor. Rather, I taught the children how to coax the grass to alter the substance of its own genetic code to achieve several specific effects.”

“Like glowing?”

“Utilizing some of its stored energy to self-illuminate, yes.”

“And the floating?”

“Mmm, harder to explain. You do not have the science for this, your approach to technology is all dark.”

“What do you know of our tech?”

“Only what I gleaned in our brief melding. The core of it, what you call hypothesis testing, we share that, but your focus is all external, and most everything you learn you apply to endeavors that violate the Rule of Three.”

“Which makes them dark? And, part of unlife?”

Foom nodded again. “Yes, you understand perfectly.”

My mind reeled as the implications dropped into place, one by one. From the moment of my mother’s phone call, through a day’s worth of air travel, amidst the puking and shitting of food poisoning, driving and hiking to reach a tiny village of people who live as their ancestors did a thousand years ago, through all of that I hadn’t dared ask myself why I had come. I wasn’t representing the US State Department; maybe they’d have sent me as part of a team because of my connections and language ability, but maybe not. I certainly wasn’t here at the behest of the Chinese government. I hadn’t come so I could be the first westerner to meet an alien—that was crazy, dangerous, and meaningless. Looking back, I’d like to think that at some unconscious level, a glimpse of Mrs. Liu’s video was all I needed to know that Foom represented the future, that it had arrived essentially at my grandmother’s doorstep, firmly rooted in the past. I’d come to be a bridge, and in that moment, having the alien confirm my understanding, I knew the world was screwed.

There was no falling back on the classic trope of taking Foom to meet with world leaders. It wouldn’t be able to perceive them. Whether it was foie gras or prime rib, a fast-food cheeseburger or a cup of insta-noodles, antibiotics or cholesterol-lowering meds, there wasn’t a president or king or diplomat on the planet that wouldn’t appear dark to the alien. And even if they deliberately purged themselves as I had unwittingly done, if they ate my grandmother’s soup or dined on fish caught and cooked by their own hand, still the things they placed the most value on, computers and air conditioning and cars and smartphones and hospitals and organ transplants and electrical grids and highway infrastructure and missile defense systems, all the things we’d accomplished as we moved from the agrarian world through the Industrial Age, past the Atomic Age and into the current Information Age, all of it was dark. Unlife.

While these thoughts poured through my brain, Foom stood still as a statue. It didn’t breathe. Had it been breathing before?

“Your vocabulary improved after we . . . touched,” I said.

“We shared,” it replied. “I acquired more of your language, more sophisticated concepts, the patterns of your cognitive processes and decision making heuristics. I have a much fuller comprehension of humanity as a result. Thank you.”

“You said ‘share.’ What did I gain in return?”

“Insight.” It smiled, lips parting wide enough to show me that it didn’t have teeth. “Your previous world view was built upon numerous philosophies you believe to be universally true. I have shown you that while such beliefs may hold true at the local level, at a truly universal level there is only the Rule of Three. You’re working through the ramifications of this even now.”

Popular culture was wrong. Foom wasn’t here to end war or share cures for all known diseases. It said it wouldn’t be here long. Anything that was going to be gleaned from it while it was on Earth would happen in a very short window of time. There would never be any US ambassadors or diplomats here. Nor any Chinese officials. There was only my grandmother, blind Mrs. Liu, some children who’d learn how to make floating, illuminated grass, parents who had no idea their kids had made alien contact, and me. More realistically, I was on my own.

About the Author

Lawrence M. Schoen

Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, is a past Campbell, Hugo, and Nebula, nominee, twice won the Cóyotl award for best novel, founded the Klingon Language Institute, and occasionally does work as a hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.

His science fiction includes many light and humorous adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist and his alien animal companion. Other works take a very different tone, exploring aspects of determinism and free will, generally redefining the continua between life and death. Sometimes he blurs the funny and the serious. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife and their dog.

Find more by Lawrence M. Schoen


About the Narrator

Christopher Tang

Christopher Tang

Christopher Tang lives in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, son, and three cats who want desperately to interrupt any recording he is doing. During the day he helps sell role-playing games at DriveThruRPG and and during the night he helps slush read over at Cast of Wonders and is trying to write his own roleplaying games.

Find more by Christopher Tang

Christopher Tang