A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
– Albert Einstein
– April 22, 2024 –
Three months shy of their twentieth wedding anniversary, Anna and Aran Jones lay on a blanket in the National Mall, flirting playfully as their children Debbie and Aiden ran around a vacant ball field. Neither yet thirty-eight years of age, the lovers whispered and laughed like teenagers, just as they had from the moment they met.
Then an all-American high-school quarterback, Aran may have packed on fifty pounds to his once-muscular six-foot-six frame but he remained a powerful man. Anna, a petite former cheerleader, was still as fit and nimble as on the day she fell head-over-heels for both the stud and his sport.
As Aran lay on his back, Anna nestled in the recess between Aran’s arm and body, cradled by his elbow and forearm. Always his left arm, though; his right arm had been their ticket out of small-town Virginia —their ticket to the big-time— and, as such, it deserved respect.
Once, Anna fell asleep on his right arm and it pinched a nerve. Aran was able to play that weekend —scoring eight total touchdowns, Anna would have you know— but neither was willing to risk his football career over something as trivial as which side she slept on.
Aran’s hand rest on Anna’s stomach so that his fore-finger fell on her belly button. From the first time Aran realized he could palm Anna’s pregnant bulge, it no longer mattered which side Anna lay on: Aran politely declined his scholarship offers, got a job with the National Park Service, married his high-school sweetheart, and welcomed their firstborn, James, into the world at the family farm in Virginia, where they lived with Aran’s widowed father until they could afford their own place in D.C.
Twisting herself out of Aran’s lazy grip, Anna climbed up and lay upon Aran’s bulging barrel, her elbows on his chest, her chin between her palms so that she could look down on his face.
“I love you, Aran George Jones, but as the first and you-better-hope-last woman to scale the world’s largest beer belly, I’m gonna be honest with you.”
Aran remained silent, smiling contently, his eyes obscured by a pair of child-size pink sunglasses.
“There’s no denying you are an incredibly handsome man, but last Christmas when you were Santa… you were too good. Nancy said you looked like Ken Doll Santa. I don’t want to be married to Ken Doll Santa —or Hawaiian Ken Doll Santa for that matter,” Anna added as she made an exaggerated attempt to fasten the topmost button of Aran’s flowery shirt.
“And it’s not just the belly, boo. It’s this beard, too. You know who you look like? Fat Thor in that old Avengers movie.”
Aran’s chuckle did little to unsettle Anna from her perch. “Aiden said I looked like Fat Thor, too.”
“It’s not a compliment, sugar.”
Anna arched her back and spread her arms and legs out, balancing on Aran’s stomach so that she looked like a skydiver. She did a plank and then extended her limbs outward again as if she were pretending to fly.
“You know what? I’m just gonna tell you what I want for our anniversary. You can keep your great granny’s china, God rest her venerable soul.”
Whether there was fancy family tableware to give Anna, Aran knew his father would ensure she received it: he had gotten her the perfect gift months ago.
“You’re gonna get in shape this summer, you’re gonna mow that mop of hair off your head,” Anna paused to pull at Aran’s blonde beard, “and you’re gonna be happy about doing it. A Jones Man takes care of his body just as he takes care of his tools.”
Aran raised his sunglasses to evaluate Anna’s expression and then laughed. “Bullshit.” He loved the liberties she took with his father’s Jones Family Words of Wisdom.
“If you’ll recall,” Aran said, allowing the sunglasses to fall back over his eyes, “I’m pretty sure I said ‘…for thinner or for fatter,’ in my vows.”
Anna rolled her eyes and her limbs went limp, draping herself sloth-like over Aran’s belly. “You were talking about me and you thought you were being funny. If you recall, no one thought it was funny.”
No one meant Aran’s father George and the pastor from George’s church: the only guests at what folks in Virginia used to call a shotgun wedding. Regardless of the circumstances, however, after Anna dropped out of high school and moved to the Jones’ family estate, she poured her heart into what everyone agreed was a special ceremony, Aran’s lame jokes aside.
Anna shimmied up Aran’s torso, pressed her nose against his, and squinted to see through his sunglasses. Softly, she sang the opening words to U2’s With or Without You. The song was on the CD he gave her for her 16th birthday. It was the song they danced to at their wedding. It was their song.
“Come to think of it, I didn’t get the wedding lap dance you promised me either.”
“Either? What either? There can’t be an either when there’s nothing I’ve never given you that I didn’t promise first. But you know what? You want a lap dance? I’ll give you one right now.”
“Surf’s up!” Anna shouted as she popped up onto Aran’s upper body: one bare foot upon his chest and the other just above his groin, causing Aran to flinch. Anna winked, jump-turned so that her feet landed upon his stomach, and then performed a back handspring, landing perfectly on the grass beyond the blanket.
Instead of attempting any such trick, Aran rolled onto his side, propped himself up on his hands and knees, and twisted his torso toward her.
“You stay away from me,” Anna warned in a voice that would have failed to dissuade twelve-year-old Aiden, who had a healthy respect for his mother’s commands. She repeated herself as Aran crawled towards her but her knees went weak as she caught sight of his blue eyes peeking over his sunglasses.
Aran sprang to his feet, scooped her up by the waist, and ran towards the children, Anna screaming and laughing along the way.
“Only two defenders between Jones and the end zone!”
The game wasn’t new to the kids and Aran slowed as he approached, allowing the children to jump on board: a five-year old mini-mommy Debbie under his other arm and towheaded Aiden around his neck, tugging and grunting in vain.
“Touchdown!” Aran shouted, shedding his defenders after several yards and then spiking an imaginary football. When he began his celebration dance, the others jumped up and joined in.
As the family walked hand-in-hand back to the picnic blanket, Aran kissed his wife, smiled at his children, and told them he’d return soon, leaving in the direction of the nearby National Academy of Sciences, where Debbie’s birthday present was stored in his locker.
Aran waited for the light to change before crossing Constitution Avenue near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and then hustled to the far sidewalk, which was busy with tourists heading to and from the sights around the Mall. As he had done thousands of times before, he took a shortcut through a small park that featured a memorial to Albert Einstein in the form of a larger-than-life bronze representation of the eminent physicist.
Despite his size, Aran moved with agility, skipping across the grass, leaping a small hedge, and then stepping onto the circular granite dais where the likeness of Einstein was casually seated. While crossing in front of the semi-reclined sculpture, Aran realized that he left his wallet (and building access keycard) on the picnic blanket and stopped at the center of the dais.
Aran patted both hands on his front and rear pockets, confirming his wallet was missing, looked up at Einstein, with whom he’d had numerous conversations over the years, and raised both arms, palms up, as if to gesticulate, Can you believe it?
At that instant, Aran was blinded by a flash of pinkish-purple color while everyone in the Mall was subsumed in a swirling light. To witnesses atop the Washington Monument, it appeared as an explosion of psychedelic color that rapidly extended across the Mall and into the sky before they too were enveloped in it, making anything other than shades of pink and purple nearly impossible to see.
No sound, wind, nor heat accompanied the blanket of color that permeated everything inside and out, across the Mall and within every structure that surrounded it. So dense and fluid were the pinkish-purple hues that it was difficult to make out anything beyond a few feet, as if no other colors existed, causing a number of cars to collide and more than a few parents, including Anna, to scream their children’s names.
Enshrouded in a constantly shifting and swirling cloud, Anna fell to the grass while rushing in the direction of Aiden’s reply, unable to see anything clearly within the pervasive kaleidoscope of color.
While the event lasted no more than a dozen seconds, it was not limited to the area surrounding the National Mall nor to Washington D.C. During the brief time it occurred, the colorful wave swept over the entire Earth and then returned to its source, vanishing almost without a trace of it ever having existed.
As quickly and quietly as it had come, it had gone, and while most everyone on Earth was either left speechless or in shock —and everyone on Earth did experience it, for the Phenomenon somehow woke people from sleep and pervaded all spaces that contained air— those in the vicinity of 22nd Street and Constitution Avenue were pulling out their phones or hanging up on whomever they had been speaking with in order to aim their cameras in the direction of the clearing before them, uncertain as to whether they should believe what they saw with their eyes or what appeared on their screens.
Half-hidden amongst a grove of birch, a black-tailed deer snaps to attention, its pupils dilating, nostrils flaring, tail standing on end, poised for flight at the slightest signal from a biological defense system millennia in the making. Sniffing silently, the deer turns away, taking cautious steps through the snow towards the cover of a dense stand of spruce.
A yawning, slack-jawed crater of illuminated ochre painted by flickering ultraviolet and subatomic cosmic rays. Sedimentary striations ponder onwards, gathering atmospheric gasses, particles, and biological remains to form memory. Patient echoes billow and spill over mighty walls, which collapse like waves. An instantaneous interruption of eternal awareness.
A cacophony of patters washes over the canopy, tumbling down genera and generations. Feathers huddled amidst jangling fruit, songs sequestered to a tree. An enclave of the endangered, unnamed, and unnecessary thriving amidst loam, fern, and fallen berry. Along a subterranean communication superhighway the gossip remains the same: survive.
Entangled limbs, exposed hearts, enlightened minds. A communion of souls penetrates the veil, transcending tradition and unleashing cries of passion, pain, and discovery that herald the dawn.
Once the colors disappeared, Anna gathered her kids and dialed Aran’s phone. Hearing its ring from the blanket, she took her children’s hands and set off for the Academy of Sciences, crossing the street where drivers had all exited their cars.
When Anna encountered a gathering around the Einstein Memorial, she pushed forward. The crowd only a few people deep, however, Anna pulled her children to a halt.
His feet hovering above the dais, Aran faced the statue of Einstein, arms raised palms up as he had been when the colorful light occurred. Was still occurring. For Aran was not simply frozen —making neither movement nor sound— he was also surrounded by a sphere of swirling pinkish-purple.
Those recording with their phones or snapping photos with their holiday cameras alternated between gaping at Aran, staring at their screens, and looking at each other’s devices to make sure there wasn’t something wrong with them: while clearly recording a man floating in the air, there was no sphere surrounding him.
Some watched videos recorded moments earlier, only to see people stumbling around for no apparent reason. Otherwise, there was no doubt that the light around the man was the same as the one they had just experienced. Their cameras, however, indicated otherwise.
Aiden, noticing everyone filming, pulled out his iPad and began recording. Upon seeing her father, Debbie broke away and ran towards him.
After commanding Aiden to stay, Anna took a deep breath and rushed after her daughter. To those around her, who would recount the moment for the rest of their lives, it looked as if she held her breath before running into a burning building.
Debbie penetrated the sphere’s perimeter and jumped onto her father’s leg. Steps behind her, Anna snatched Debbie and clutched her to her bosom. She looked at Aran, who faced away from her and was obscured by the disorienting color, and then turned away.
Startled by the noise of a helicopter hovering overhead, along with a blaring announcement emanating from the street, Anna dropped to her knees beside Aiden and wrapped her arms around both children, completely unaware that the crowd was now transfixed upon her, their phones and cameras soon to make her family the most famous living people on Earth.
– 5 –
In the moments after the colorful phenomenon occurred, the President of the United States was whisked to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, a bunker-like structure beneath the East Wing of the White House.
“Threat assessment,” the President demanded.
“Unknown,” replied the President’s Director of National Intelligence.
“Unknown?! Let’s try something more simple: what the fuck was that? A bomb? A gas? I want answers, now!”
“Unknown on all accounts,” the DNI replied. “Reports are coming in from local police, embassies, and overseas military facilities. This… Phenomenon appears to have been a global event. Every report is nearly identical: several seconds of intense and seemingly-innocuous colorful light.”
“You’ve got nothing?”
“No EMP. No radiation signature. The National Weather Service reports no anomalous solar activity, no remarkable barometric or temperature fluctuations, nothing. We haven’t even been able to source any video of the event, let alone an indication of who or what caused it. Other than firsthand accounts of the same pinkish-purple light we experienced here in D.C., we have no evidence of whatever just occurred.”
“What do you mean there’s no video?”
The President turned to the Special Agent In Charge of the Presidential Protective Division, ordering him to play back the recordings of the Oval Office.
“Right away, sir,” the President’s chief of security replied, seating himself at the terminal that controlled the monitors at the far end of the fortified meeting room.
“Mr. President, we have Chief Bartusch of the National Park Police,” the President’s Chief of Staff interrupted as one television monitor came to life with footage of the Oval Office. Another monitor featured a live feed from a police helicopter less than a mile from the White House.
“On speaker,” the President ordered.
“Sir, we have a situation at the corner of 22nd and Constitution,” the police chief barked. “We’re corralling witnesses but, uhhh… let’s get a FEMA team down here ASAP and uhh… God almighty, I — I need orders on how to proceed.”
“Sir,” the DNI whispered in the President’s ear, “I think we have a Code Purple.”
The DNI was referring to an emergency procedure reserved for particularly abnormal events such as first contact with an intelligent alien species. The irony of the Code Purple was missed, however, as the President moved closer to the monitors. On one large screen, the occupants of the Oval Office appeared confused, their arms extended and hands exploring the air around them. The recording, taken no more than ten minutes earlier, offered no apparent explanation for anyone’s behavior.
An aerial view of the Albert Einstein Memorial appeared on a monitor, showing a man standing with his arms outstretched. Several smaller monitors showed cell phone camera footage offering ground-level perspectives of the memorial. In one, a young girl ran up to the man, jumped onto his leg, and clung to it. She jumped, the President noted, because the man’s feet were more than a dozen inches above the ground.
“Sir?” the police chief continued. “That thing —that light— it’s still occurring.”
“What do you mean ‘still occurring’?” the President responded. “What the hell is going on down there?”
“Sir, we have the helicopter pilot,” an aide informed the President.
“The subject appears to be surrounded by a circular cloud of colorful gas or light. I repeat, subject is surrounded by a swirling ball of pinkish purple stuff, just like that other light that filled the sky.”
“That’s it,” the President declared as he watched a woman run up to the apparently floating man, pull the little girl off his leg, and then run out of frame. “Bill, notify the CDC. Bioterror Level A. Let’s get a team down there to secure that location. Chief, I want that location secure. You round up everyone —I mean everyone at or around that memorial. Lock. It. Down! Mark, get House and Senate leadership here ASAP. Tell them we need to initiate the National Biological Threat Protocol. Doug, get me everything you’ve got on that man and that woman.”
At once, nearly everyone in the room picked up a landline to set in motion the first federally-mandated emergency lockdown of the United States, employing the extraordinary powers granted to the federal government not only in the aftermath of 9-11 but also COVID-19. As they did so, the Director of National Intelligence turned to the President with additional news: “NASA just confirmed extraterrestrial evidence of the event.”
“Jesus save us. This was an alien attack?”
“Negative, sir,” the DNI replied, at first embarrassed for the President for jumping to such an absurd conclusion and then, looking at the man floating on the TV monitor, suddenly not convinced he was wrong. “NASA reports that astronauts aboard the International Space Station also experienced the Phenomenon.”
“Thank God,” the President replied, relieved that he wasn’t —as of yet, at least— dealing with an alien invasion.
– 6 –
Reaction to the Phenomenon varied widely across the globe. While Americans leaned toward government conspiracies and alien invasions, other cultures had more diverse explanations often rooted in legend and folklore. In remote areas of China, ancient beliefs spread like dragon fire from the lips of the elderly to the fingertips of young netizens, leading the government to crack down on those spreading rumors based on supernatural superstition.
In India and the Middle East, many believed the event was an act of one God or another. Interpretations varied greatly, some believing it was an ill omen requiring sacrifices or purification rituals and others that it was a harbinger of great cosmic change. From villages across Africa to those deep in the Amazon, people whispered the names of spirits, some ascribing the Phenomenon to an outburst of anger at humanity’s disregard for the forests, the animals, or the people whose populations had been decimated over the decades.
As many cultures and tongues as existed on Earth, an equal number of tales were told of long-lost prophecies and nearly-forgotten plagues. Whether they prayed to appease an angry God or gathered their families to prepare for whatever they were convinced was soon to follow, most people agreed that something meaningful had occurred: something historic.
Even those in the West who believed it was a natural phenomenon were awed by the magnitude and intensity of the event. While each culture had their own ideas about its cause, the entire world had witnessed something that made them feel momentarily powerless, at the mercy of something greater, causing them all to consider their place in the world.