Human Intelligence: A Holiday Tale

Listen to this episode

S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership.

S2: I’m Kurt Anderson and this is the Studio 360 podcast.

S3: I’ve got a Christmas story for you. There will be no stockings hung or mistletoe or talking snowmen in this Christmas story. Instead, it involves high tech surveillance and melting polar ice caps. But I guarantee it’s in the spirit. I wrote this story for an anthology edited by the great fiction writer Neil Gaiman.

Advertisement

S4: And then with the help of the great radio maker and Studio 360 alumnus Jonathan Mitchell, we turn it into this radio drama. It’s called Human Intelligence. I hope you enjoy it.

S5: He found it painful to lie. Which was unfortunate for someone who had spent most of his life as a spy.

S6: In recent years, for fun, he had sometimes told strangers, children, as well as their childlike parents who he really was.

S7: I’m a spy. I’m here in a long term intelligence gathering operation. But it’s super top secret. So if you don’t mind, I really. That’s all I can say about it.

S8: In America in the 21st century, who was going to be anything but amused by a charming, well-groomed old gentleman making a fantastic remark or two?

Advertisement

S9: I’m officially stationed thousands of miles away. I’ve been on assignment in Chicago practically forever.

S10: He had looked like an old man, even when he was younger. He had grown a full beard to conceal the purple cross-hatching of surgical scars on his chin and upper neck. Now that he was genuinely elderly, it pleased him that appearance and reality had come into sync.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S11: He looked old, and by any standard he was old.

S12: One less lie to live.

S5: As for his mission, he doubted that anyone at headquarters was any longer aware of him or his mission.

S13: If headquarters still existed, television had made his job much easier. The Internet had made it moot.

Advertisement

S14: Yet he had continued to adhere to the four main directives of the contingency plan, almost as articles of faith remain at the last position reported to headquarters, maintain all necessary discretion and secrecy, continued to chronicle the people and their society to whatever extent possible, await retrieval.

S15: Retrieval is the closest English translation of the word and the orders not rescue. He’d come to resent that. Since the crash, had he gone native?

S16: Probably so.

S17: So here he was, living in a city a thousand times larger than when he arrived.

S18: Chronicling and waiting. Chronicling and waiting. Chronicling and still waiting.

S19: It was three years ago when he first saw the throb of purple light and shouted so loudly that his young downstairs neighbor called up to see if he was all right.

Advertisement

S20: According to the contingency plan instructions, a purple light on his remote beacon meant that sensors on the exterior of the station were exposed to sunlight.

S17: And he inferred the obvious when a third of the polar cap melted in the summer of 2007, the top of his old station, the tubing and tanks were no longer buried by dozens of feet of Arctic ice. What’s taking them so long to find it? For each of the last three summers, he has waited for the news bulletins and resulting global hysteria. And although it felt vaguely insubordinate to whom or even traitorous to what, he was excited by the prospect of everyone on Earth all at once learning.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S21: Nancy Zuckerman had always liked spending time outdoors when she was 7. She could stick a live worm on a fishing hook and set up a tent herself, but it was the second Indiana Jones sequel.

S22: The summer she turned eight that set her old fashioned green. At the end of the 20th century, adults patronized little Nancy, not because she was a girl, but because explorers no longer existed.

S23: Fortunately, she was a cheerful team player, as well as a cheerfully independent loner. She used to say, if I could be a superhero, I would be totally willing to be like a second string member of X-Men or the Justice League.

S24: And so Science and her particular field suited her exploration geophysics specializing in the Arctic. She hadn’t minded spending the last year and a half in the Svalbard Islands, northern most Norway. She was attached to a project team testing the feasibility of thickening the polar cap by pumping seawater onto the ice and letting it freeze. Good data had been collected. Techniques had been refined. It wasn’t heroic exploration of the kind she’d imagined as a child.

Advertisement

S5: But as she approached 30, she’d made her peace with the realities of incremental science and the world as it was, or so she had thought until a few weeks ago.

S24: She was five days into an excursion aboard the university’s research vessel, the Dauntless, taking a group of undergraduates on a tour of the edge of the ice cap.

S25: Around 2 a.m. 1 July morning. Unable to sleep, she’d gotten up and taken one of the motorboats out alone to cruise close to the ice looking for polar bears to photograph. It was warm, 46 degrees, the sky almost cloudless and the sun high in the sky. The sea was calm, 30 yards from the ice at the mouth of the new inlet.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S21: She got the motor and let herself drift along.

S26: Sitting in the bottom of the boat, watching camera at the ready, she was exploring a half hour past. Some terns flew past, but she saw no bears or seals. When she heard and felt the thud.

S25: She figured she’d struck a chunk of submerged ice. The boat rocked freely in the water, even though it was stuck more or less in place. She started probing underwater with the tip of an oar blade and a foot and a half beneath the surface found not ice, but what felt like a pipe, a big pipe. She climbed over to the opposite side to probe some more and found another pipe running parallel, completely bizarre, kneeling.

Advertisement

S21: She started to use the OR as a pole, levering it against the underwater pipe on one side to propel the boat back, shoving and coasting toward the opening through which she must have drifted.

S24: But then the dinghy stopped moving. Caught between the mysterious pipes, the underwater pipes came together at an angle, and she was wedged near the apex, stuck fast. Oh, damn, damn, damn. She was alarmed, a little frightened. If the boat was stuck, it was not clear when she would be found.

S26: She hadn’t brought along a radio, but she was also exhilarated. She was exploring, and she had discovered something.

S27: Twelve days ago, his beacon had started alternating a sharp truce throb with each purple one short truce meant that someone had entered the station and the station’s mapping console would give any clever intruder the precise location of the remote beacon. He could easily enough drop the beacon in a dumpster or heave it into the Chicago River.

Advertisement

S17: Instead, he has gotten all his documents and images in order. The entire Chronicle, he has packed a suitcase and straightened up the apartment.

Advertisement

S28: He’s been watching cable TV and surfing the Web, constantly awaiting the astonished news bulletins.

S5: But he’s surprised when the front door buzzer buzzes. He had expected helicopters and floodlights and grappling hooks and special ops troopers and black visors and hazmat suits, automatic weapons and gas canisters. He’d even practiced dropping to the floor and putting his hands over his head.

S29: He wonders if it’s the U.P.S. guy. Yes.

S30: Hi. Hi. I’m looking for someone who also lives in the Arctic. Eighty six degrees, 90 minutes.

Advertisement

S31: Twenty seven seconds north of.

S32: She’s alone, apparently unarmed and very young. She extends her right hand.

S33: Hi, I’m Nancy Zuckerman. Hello, I’m Nicholas Walker. I’m a scientific researcher stationed in the Arctic.

S32: Really? So am I. Come on in. I’d love to you.

S34: Thank you. This is so fortunate for the two of us.

S35: It’s how they sit down and she begins explaining herself in a nervous run in long European with the universe up at the edge of the ice or an accidentally Jimmy, the entry system was maybe some NATO facility in materials and shapes of digital, including the big digital map with its one blinking light in the middle of NORTHAM 87 degrees, 35 minute.

S33: And so I found this image, this little plastic image, which turns out that it’s you. I showed it to a lady downstairs and here I am.

S13: She’d talked for ten minutes, yet she hadn’t asked him where he’s from or what he’s doing here, which is fine by him. He’s in no particular hurry.

S35: This is beyond surreal. I mean, I feel like I am on drugs. I mean, this is incredible. This is this is a whole category of something I cannot even define. And that’s how exciting this is.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S29: Have you told about the station? Not a soul. He knows about keeping secrets. I want to be the one to reveal it, to tell the whole story, to be, you know, the discoverer.

S35: Like Columbus or Magellan or Galileo or ised.

S29: You. Do you know who those people are? Yes, I do. He likes this girl. He will give her the gift she wants.

S36: You said you saw images at the station. Yeah. Projected on the monitors.

S35: Dozens of pictures on those spheres. 3-D in color of huts and houses and towns and farm animals with carts and soldiers and temples. It looks like from all over the world, Europe, Asia, Africa. I know I took them. A lot of those images looked really old, unbelievably old. Not the pictures, I mean, but the people in the buildings. Yeah. So you were taking photographs all over the world before photography was invented and moving pictures to videos?

S36: Well, more or less. May I ask your age? This station was established in 420 980 seee whatever.

S13: She stares her skepticism, races to catch up with her astonishment.

S36: I arrived just over one thousand five hundred years ago. I’m eighteen hundred and seven of your years, which is really ancient even on my planet.

S5: It had seemed impossible to, Nancy, but in the weeks since she discovered the underwater station, it had also seemed like the only plausible explanation. She tries not to hyperventilate.

S29: Where? What planet are you from? We call it girl.

S36: About sixty two light years away. It’s close by, but in the scheme of things. But far enough. It turns out that it made me expendable.

S5: He had imagined this encounter hundreds of times. Thousands even rehearsed it.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S36: You’re wondering if I’m insane? I expect. Well, there have been moments over the years when I started wondering verything. Am I a pathetic, demented geezer? Lots of schizophrenics have delusions along this line.

S5: He picks up a pair of nail scissors from the coffee table and gets hard into the palm of his right hand.

S34: His blood is a kind of Day-Glo orange, and as it drips from his hand onto the table, it sizzles and burns the wood like acid. There are other modifications I could perform, but he really does not want to remove his eyes from their sockets or shower that he has a bifurcated phosphorescent penis and no anus at all.

S37: I believe you. I totally believe you.

S6: His government had established a system to directly monitor civilizations on the 116 inhabited planets feasible for vision aliens to reach a reconnaissance probe was sent to the Earth’s surface to photograph intelligent life forms.

S38: He had had extensive surgery to look human. His station was installed beneath the polar ice and voila, he was on his own.

S8: He flew around the world in a small aircraft, taking pictures, making videos, scribbling notes. He had a weapon, a long one, which temporarily paralyzed nearby creatures.

S39: He preferred to demonstrate his good intentions by giving away tokens, beads and bits of gold.

S40: Once each century, a mothership would visit to resupply him and return home with a copy of his meticulous multi-media chronicle of another Earth century.

S41: So your people back on your planet, we’re only seeing your reports one hundred years after the fact and you wouldn’t hear back from them for a hundred years after that.

S11: Speed of light is the speed of light at the end of his eight hundred year tour of duty in the 13th century.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S42: He was to have been replaced by a younger agent, but no mother ship arrived in twelve twenty nine. No mothership ever showed up again.

S35: But so why are you here now? Why aren’t you up in the Arctic?

S36: My kind of town, Chicago.

S32: She doesn’t get the joke. An accident.

S43: One winter, he was wrapping up his annual Northern Field survey, flying north when he lost power and crash landed in Lake Michigan.

S32: He managed to get most of his gold, as well as the paralized or video equipment and the portable beacon. The aircraft sank.

S36: Our orders were unequivocal to remain as close as possible to the last position and wait for rescue.

S33: So you were here before the Europeans and the French arrived.

S36: Fortunately, they ignored the stories the Indians told about me.

S13: And you did what hunted and gathered this tangent makes him dread that she will ask to use his bathroom. He has no toilet paper.

S36: Well, I don’t eat as such. My body absorbs nutrients from the air.

S17: They had talked for more than two hours, and Nicholas had awoken two hours before she arrived on this hot planet. Pour in the nutrients he needs. Nicholas sleeps nearly 20 hours a day and he’s getting drowsy.

S35: We have so much to talk about. So much.

S36: Yes, we do, indeed. But if you don’t mind, perhaps I can nap.

S33: Thank you. This is so extraordinary. I can’t see where it’s really till she reaches over and touches his shoulder.

S44: Thank you.

S45: I’m pleased to. Extraordinarily pleased that it was you who made the discovery here. I am very, very lucky.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S29: You are lucky, you’re good.

S35: I mean, I won the lottery to end all lotteries.

S46: It’s literally Christmas in July of Anansi is horrified. Has this all been a practical joke, a hoax? Is this a setup for some incredibly elaborate reality show?

S45: So if my dog is ruined, my manners, I am so sorry. There’s another part of the story. I wanted to tell you later. But look, now that I’ve upset you, that simply will not do. He describes his aircraft.

S11: It was 26 feet long with a large, transparent canopy, a complicated antenna array jutting out from the nose and landing rails instead of wheels.

S47: So when the people in the north, the Nordics and the Lap’s and the rest saw me flying and cruising at low altitudes through the mid-winter skies 900 years ago, 100 years ago.

S48: What do you suppose they thought they were seeing?

S49: Oh, my God. Sleigh.

S50: Pulled by flying reindeer. Driven by a large bearded man who had given them gifts.

S51: Oh, my God.

S40: She’s had three weeks to get used to the idea that she’d discovered an extra terrestrial base and that she might actually find an intelligent being from another planet.

S52: But this meeting, Santa Claus is too shocking to process. Nicholas. Oh, my God.

S53: When they asked where I lived, I saw no reason to conceal the truth beyond the mountains of Corvis Centauri I told near the top of the world. Although I don’t believe I ever set up the North Pole.

S54: He sleeps still sitting on the couch. His head tilted back, Mansi can see the thick network of scars under the beard. It’s almost midnight when he wakes.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: He walks to the bedroom and returns with a black spherical device that reminds Nancy of a magic 8 ball.

S45: May I sit next to you? I’ve never figured out the way to hook this thing up to the television.

S55: Christ, they’ve got sounds. I’m an idiot. Of course they have sound.

S56: She sees aerial panoramas of Lakota Indians chasing a bison over a cliff in the sandhills. Junk’s and gondolas on the Tigris and Baghdad.

S57: China’s Great Wall half built.

S56: She watches and listens to slightly furtive looking shots inside a bustling Viking tavern in northern England.

S58: Men packing a piece of bronze statuary into a crate in 11th century Benin.

S59: A mock sea battle at the Colosseum in Rome.

S58: A smiling toddler in Aido. Speaking Japanese directly to the camera.

S56: And finally, a tall, beardless man delivering a speech in Chicago in the summer of 1858.

S60: If one man says it does not mean a Negro, why not another say it does not meet some other man? That declaration is not the truth. Let us get the statute book in which we find it and tear it out.

S61: Yep. Abraham Lincoln.

S33: I can’t take you back up to the station and you can see if the people on Freed’s free TONC free verse. Right. Has sent any messages to you there for the last seven hundred years. He shakes his head. If he could cry, he might cry. Well, if I have your permission to tell your story to the world, I mean, if you prefer that I wait until after, you know, after you’re gone to reveal everything posthumously. I would completely understand.

S45: When someone else stumbles across the station in the meantime. I’m so tired of keeping my secret.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: He thought about saying, all right, Miss Zuckerman, I’m ready for my Close-Up, but figured she probably wouldn’t get it.

S33: I thought I was going to have to persuade you.

S47: I’ve had more than enough time to consider this, my dear.

S40: He will hand over his chronicle all 2.4 million words he’s written in all seventy three thousand four hundred and ninety six hours of video he shot on every continent but Antarctica in every year from the early fifth century to the late 19th century. He will tell everything he knows about life in our part of the Milky Way, corroborated by the library of text and images stored at the station.

S53: It’s all badly out of date, of course, but it’s better than nothing.

S40: And he will give to the people of Earth his surviving pieces of technology, in particular the batteries that power the video player and portable beacon, an Arctic station all still operating after a millennium.

S48: I should think that some bright scientists somewhere will be able to reverse engineer them.

S35: This is gonna be unbelievable, Nicholas. Let’s hope not. I mean, this will be the biggest thing ever.

S36: I do hope that people anyway, most people will be glad to learn that they’re not alone in the universe. Nicholas?

S44: Yes. May I hug you?

S62: That was a short story I wrote called Human Intelligence.

S63: The radio version was produced by Jonathan Mitchell, Melanie Hoopes read the part of Nancy and Nicholas was played by John out of you know, the narrator was Ed HEARPE.

S64: Thanks for listening. And you can subscribe to Studio 360 wherever you get podcasts.