Initialise cortex crystal seven-two-five, constellation housing. Human file three-three-two-six-seven-two responding. Personality retrieval at eighty-three percent. Memory retention at ninety-three percent. Consciousness streamlining within acceptable error bars. Calculate seventy-two percent chance personality subroutines will respond within point five standard deviations of original subject.
Crystal at resonant harmonies. Begin extrapolation.
Is this on? Nothing feels any different. Is this on?
And I was there. I was there the day the Earth died. I was also there for quite a few of the days before, which is why I'm asking for your time today. Because, as should be obvious, even on this journey to a distant star, how can we know where we're going unless we understand where we've been?
Obviously the glib answer to the implied question is "Earth". A rather more coldly accurate one would be "an expanding cloud of faintly radioactive oxygen and silicon that used to be a planet". But there is more to it than that. There has to be, otherwise my requesting you listen to my memories of those last years in which I was deputy CO of the World News Network would be unbearable narcissism. I have, I assure you, always striven to make my narcissism bearable, at least when not drunk.
Barring a miracle of medical and technological reinvention, I shall never be drunk again.
On to the subject. We shall begin, I think, in January 2020, the first month - to my knowledge - in which UFO sightings reached such an undeniable peak, and were viewed with such unimpeachable eyes, that we could no longer deny that we were Not Alone. Alas, the print news roundup we published at that time contained no hint of what was about to descend. We had heard rumours, of course, but the WNN did not publish gossip and rank speculation. Not at the time, at least; our policy on that changed rather dramatically not long before A-Day.
I include a copy of that issue with my transmission. I think I do, anyway. What do I - ah, yes. I think this thing, and then this thing, and then...
There. That should've worked. You'll note that in fact we were reporting on alien activity even in those early days, it's simply that we had no idea that's what we were doing. You can also see immediately our commitment to bringing you the most expertly-crafted puns in news. The UN one was mine (though my story on the actual beginnings of the session was spiked after I insisted on implying the whole sorry organisation was about to collapse under its own pretension; given we can essentially blame that august former body for getting the Earth killed, I'd say my original story rather low-balled how snivelling and wretched they were), as was the whole story titled "We Are Scientists", a band my son liked back in the days when he had ears. Personally I think the lack of math-rock is one of the very few things that makes life as a vibrating crystal without so much a sniff at a gin and tonic halfway close to being bearable.
(I always laugh when I remember our naive insistence on "credible" sources as we started out with our new print editions. Within a few years we'd take a story from a meth-addled snail farmer if it meant we could get things printed in time for cocktails.)
It was at about this time that America and Russia both rediscovered their interests in what had once been their number one hobby: flinging shit at each other. The Americans had announced the existence of alien life and insisted they were best left at the forefront of communication with same. The Russians claimed the Americans were trying to blackmail them into military co-operation. I had my first of a number of run-ins with the American Vice President over the matter, during which he said a great number of placating statements of no real content, and a single unguarded phrase which immediately framed the story: "Our aim is to ensure other countries are in step with our goals". It was so perfect an encapsulation of American arrogance that it simply had to make it into print. Naturally, this early swipe at US imperialism was not enough to satisfy the Russians (even with another story in the issue printing their accusations against Washington); they later accused of us being "blatantly in the can" for America. Proof you can never please everyone, I suppose, though perhaps we'd have kept them happier had I been allowed to print my intended headline for the piece: "America, F**k Yeah!". Would they have understood the reference? Perhaps not. But given the choice, I always prefer to be misunderstood due to other's stupidity than my own timorousness. Better to have to apologise than to have to restate. Better still to just sneer loudly and walk on.
(Here you can see my growing obsession with attempting to fashion puns out of languages I can barely speak. Also, I was never happy with my "From Russia With Lychees" headline, mainly because Russia's CABAL acronym was vastly more clever. I think if more forces armed with bewilderingly destructive weapons took the time to underline their sense of humour, the world would be a less dangerous place. Or, you know, would be if it wasn't now a glittering expanse of dust and ice.)
No sooner than it appeared the New Cold War was spooling up, though, tensions eased between the two powers when the sudden emergence of pro-Russian guerrillas in Ukraine caused everyone to stop and think about whether cross-continental fisticuffs should be where they should focus their energy. Despite the avalanche of trembling stress it caused (at one point I thought my boss Ms Kelly would rather eat her laptop than type up another story on it) we threw out everything we'd been working on, replacing it with up-to-date coverage of the greatest act of US-Russian co-operation since the fall of Berlin, or possibly Yul Brynner putting up with Steve McQueen for long enough to make The Magnificent Seven.
With the echo of glasnost in the air, the two powers were free to find new foes. Both countries chose us; continuing to grumble our reporting was biased (perhaps our "Breaking News" segment was written in too much haste). Their mutterings notwithstanding the only people we had our sights on at thia point was France, who - in an official interview, no less - announced the rising tensions across Europe had forced them to deploy major air assault resources... in Africa. Fortunately for their public reputation, word arrived just in time that this was a (hilariously transparent) deception, intended to cover up the fact they'd discovered a major alien base in South Africa and were determined to not leave the continent unchallenged.
(This issue contains my absolute favourite pun of our entire publication history: "A Cote De Cote D'Ivoire". The impact may have been lessened by us forgetting how to put accents on letters - recent redundancies had left us badly understaffed by people who knew how computers work - and in an ideal world someone would have spotted we'd spelled the name of the damn country wrong. Still, though: French puns. You're welcome. The inclusion of this nearly made up for my original headline for the news bulletin - "You Cray, Ukraine?"- being spiked on the grounds of taste and/or basic human decency. If I'd wanted a job where I was expected to generate or even consider decency, I can promise you I wouldn't have gotten into news reporting.)
Looking back on our slightly confused coverage of the Ukraine crisis, I can at understand at least in part why not everyone was happy with us. In our defence, though, how much chance did we have of doing better? By now we were getting whiplash at how often Washington and Moscow were changing their minds over whether they were co-operating outside Kiev or threatening each other through clenched teeth. Absolutely no-one seemed to know the facts on the ground. Certainly we didn't; our only reliable reporter was too busy sitting in at the UN and hoping for a Ferrero Rocher to roll his way. All we had to go on was the bellowing heads of the respective countries, whose shouting changed in tone and content almost literally minute by minute. The lunatic circle of blame that blew up between the US on the one hand and China and Russia on the other over the actions of one or both or neither country in sending spies or perhaps cultists to America's eastern seaboard (all I knew here was that the Chinese were out of their minds: every time I hear someone yelling "FALSE FLAG!" it makes me want to reach for an absinthe and paraquat cocktail) had everyone on edge. Events were threatening to undermine what little goodwill the US's slow withdrawal of forces in Eastern Europe had generated.
Meanwhile, France and Brazil were at loggerheads over the latter's violation of Moroccan airspace, someone shot the President of Nigeria literally seconds before we sent the Jan '21 issue to press (a story we never got to follow up on, which gives you some idea of how badly we'd been downsized), and only Japan seemed content to mind its own business and strive for global improvement. That's if you don't count the massive resources they funnelled into CABAL, of course; by joining that organisation they forged an allied air force that now covered half the globe. We called it CABAL+ in the paper because I'd forgotten what the Japanese word for "plus" was, but however it was framed, it made the Americans nervous. And when the Americans are nervous, it's best to be nervous too, because last time the US got upset with how the Japanese air force was operating they nuked Nagasaki.
(Poor Japan. They put all this effort into feeding the world and I announce it with a thoroughly tasteless headline. Which is actually much less tasteless than that joke I just made about Nagasaki, I guess. So it could have been worse. And now is.)
By this point nations across the world were beaming transmissions to our alien visitors, with the by-all-accounts almost total failure to translate the replies apparently seemingly to not causing the slightest consternation. Accusations and counter-accusations were thrown at the UN as they tried to determine who had sent what when, and what replies had been received and what they could mean. Japan's brief period of positive press collapsed when it was claimed they had pretended to be the UN itself in their hopes of levering an advantage from our alien visitors. It's almost funny to think about how at one point this was the biggest problem the world had with Japanese-extraterrestrial relations. It's like imagining some hypothetical Romeo and Juliet prequel where Lords Montague and Capulet basically get on even though Capulet didn't really spend all that much on Montague's last birthday card.
Meanwhile, WNN had its own problems. The Americans, having been stung early on by us focusing on their haughty hubris, had become increasingly unhappy as issue after issue went by without them being given the respect they had convinced themselves they were entitled to, and were making noises about total refusal to co-operate with the press (at this point they were preceding every comment they made to us with "On the record", which I presume was offered in the spirit of bitter snark rather than seen as an actual method for maintaining secrecy). Something had to be done to keep them at least vaguely onside, or we risked losing the most secure access to alien information we currently had.
The decision was quickly made to offer a puff piece opportunity, a quick interview with Vice President Hart that would offer the Americans the chance they believed they'd been denied to deliver their message to the world. The resulting piece was ultimately fairly anodyne; I expected the Russians to demand their own similar piece (something we were prepared to grant but not to specifically offer for fear of offending the Americans once again), but nothing was said from Moscow. Later I learned this was because the same coverage that had so offended the Americans we needed to make a peace offering was seen by Russia as so blatantly pro-Washington that Hart's interview simply cemented us as a pro US mouthpiece. I suppose printing the rumors that the Russians had captured a live alien didn't help. I still don't know if that was actually true, though really, what could it possibly matter now?
(Note that at this point we couldn't even be trusted to keep our articles within the margins. The problem with making redundancies is that it drastically decreases the pool of people you can blame for this kind of cock-up. Still, the Americans were still thrilled they got to get their side of the story across, and everyone else was thrilled our formatting mistake had cut this embarrassing example of public fawning at least slightly short.
This was also the issue at which we reached our pun nadir, at least in terms of quality. Brown-nosing the Americans had left me with very little time for inventive wordplay. This is presumably why comedians get less funny as they climb society's ladder, with Ben Elton being the most stark example.)
So much time was spent on the US we almost didn't have space to announce the new prestigious science awards that was being discussed in whispers along the halls of power. This, we were informed by our shadowy "benefactors", would not do/ I must confess that originally my pride was pricked by us being quietly strong-armed into advertising the competition in our news-sheet - I say pricked, but I inflated like a sozzled bullfrog over this, so whatever pricked me, it could not have sunk all that deep. With the benefit of hindsight (if there is any point anymore to using that phrase in any context other than looking back sadly at the roads we could have taken to not get our home planet blown to bits), I realise what was really going on. This wasn't a scientific convention. It was a sting operation.
(No, there is no Professor of Spaceships at Oxford University. I just made the job up. And the Professor. What kind of name is "Fatwasp", I ask you? I assume I was drunk.)
Earth was entering her endgame now. None of us could have known that, of course, but even in our ignorance there was a sense of acceleration, of history falling so far behind us that it no longer mattered. The future was a freight train heading straight for us, and we could jump onto it or be crushed beneath. The laws of physics didn't favour us on that one.
The sense of adrenaline and madness was everywhere in those days, and WNN could not claim to be an exception. With contact with the aliens becoming more and more common, and more and more concerning, events were unspooling to the point where almost every story we released was either outdated or inaccurate, often both. We announced the winners of the international science competition whilst those running it were up on corruption charges. We announced the US and UK were joining Le CABAL+ when in fact they had promised only to work alongside them (really, though, once you announce you'll let an international organisation give orders to your fighter jets, you've joined that organisation and no amount of hair-splitting is going to change that). We were running out the clock, and we knew it. Print was dead. The lay of the land could change utterly in the length of time it took for our printer to finish spreading ink across a page in a rough approximation of what we'd sent it. Even my puns were falling behind the curve. "Top Top Top Top Top Top Top Guns"? That's not a joke; that's basic bloody arithmetic.
Still, as bad a time of it as we were having, it could've been worse. The calamitous fall from grace of Brazil's Professor Ferreira was proof enough of that (the poor man tried to bribe us with information to keep his name out of the papers, but all he could offer us was that the alien forces came from Jupiter, which a) everyone had heard, and b) no one believed). Rather less amusing was the number of alien vessels entering our atmosphere to abduct people. The fact they labelled their victims "refugees" was a distinction that reassured precisely nobody. Especially since America's weaponised-space program had reached the point where they could be in a position to declare war on the aliens any day now, and everyone in the international community was fully cognisant of how much the US hated building weapons that they couldn't use more or less immediately on someone who didn't look like them.
To make matters worse, at least for us, our access to major political figures had been drastically curtailed, not out of spite, but because they were all too busy trying to keep the world from falling apart. What little snippets we could pry from them as they jetted from country to country was garbled and contradictory, as is made only too clear by the fact that more or less every piece of information we published about our alien visitors was completely wrong. The rot set in with the edition below, in which we repeated the utterly inaccurate intel from Japan that the aliens comprised of two factions, a rumour that can plausibly be said to have cost the lives of millions of people who stayed behind, and the bodies of those of us who managed to acquire a last-minute upload. Had I known I would be trapped as memory engrams inside a buzzing grey crystal for the rest of eternity, I suspect I might have put a little more effort into fact-checking.
(The ending to the Brazilian scandal story might be my favourite moment among all the sheets we wrote up, actually.)
And now we reach the final hours of our planet's life. The Out Of Context problem. The old black joke turned into a horrifying reality - no wonder Douglas Adams decided he was better off out of it so early. By now events were moving so quickly WNN managed the oddly impressive feat of releasing an entire issue that contained not a single piece that wasn't either utterly inaccurate or thoroughly outdated. If the planet hadn't been destroyed, I'd have dropped a rock on our offices myself in shame. Still, no-one needed the media anymore. They needed a miracle. Mycroft was awake, and the aliens were furious. War had broken out in Antarctica and threatened to spread. The UN had abandoned their rigidly-structured bitching sessions so they could gather nervously around computer monitors updating the apocalyptic severity of our situation in real time.
So we just came up with the best puns we could think of, shut everything down, and ran screaming for the nearest alien transport. Our discarded printed bulletins blew across the surface of a dying earth, gripped in the storms of an atmosphere driven mad by what was being shoved into it. Our hopes were as doomed as everything else.
So there we go. The story of how the world ended, by one of those who should have known the most, but somehow managed to be amongst the least well-informed of us all. Being a journalist, I ultimately learned, does not mean hearing more truth. It means hearing more everything. The meal isn't more tasty, or more healthy, it is simply bigger, and utterly unconnected to any sane vision of coherent cuisine. You can't eat it all, you know that some of it will be foul and some of it will be poisoned. But you have to gulp down as much as you can regardless, with no way to know what's good for you. Certainly your menu is no help, it simply states "Eat the right bits or we will hate you". And so you desperately scoop food into your mouth, lacking the time to chew, lacking the time to swallow, really. In and in it goes, handful after dripping handful, as you search desperately for the taste of something true and interesting you can sift from the morass and try to recreate for public consumption. A task as impossible as it is depressing. I would have preferred to retire to the Scottish highlands and distill whisky rather than have my brain stored inside a shiny rock for all eternity, but either way, I can at least be glad I'm out of the business.
Next time you need someone to tell you a story, look somewhere else. This will be the last tale that I tell.
I hope that I got it right.