Scott Alexander recently shared a science-fiction story of sorts:
Mr. S, an ordinary American, is minding his own business outside his East Coast home when he is suddenly abducted by short large-headed creatures like none he has ever seen before. They bring him to their ship and voyage across unimaginable distances to an alien world both grander and more horrible than he could imagine. The aliens have godlike technologies, but their society is dystopian and hivelike. Enslaved at first, then displayed as a curiosity, he finally wins his freedom through pluck and intelligence. Despite the luxuries he enjoys in his new life, he longs for his homeworld. He befriends a local noble who tells him that the aliens in fact send ships to his world on a regular basis, quietly scouting and seeking resources while the inhabitants remain blissfully aware of these incursions. He gets passage on such an expedition.
Before his ship gets far, he is abducted and sold into slavery again, only to be rescued by a sect of alien priests who believe he may hold the key to saving his entire race. They are kind to him and ask him to stay, but when he refuses they reluctantly arrange him passage home.
Yet when he returns, Mr. S finds a postapocalyptic wasteland utterly unlike the world he left. America is empty, its great cities gone, a few survivors fighting for scraps among the ruins. 95% of the population is dead, slain by a supervirus unlike any doctors have ever seen. The few rumors from afar say Mexico, Canada, and lands further abroad have suffered the same or worse. He finds the site where his hometown once stood. There is nothing. Wandering in despair, he is captured by a gang of roving bandits and awaits execution or slavery.
Instead, the bandit leader reveals he is the state governor, reduced to his current station by the devastation that destroyed his capital and entire government. An alien ship has landed, and a handful of colonists have set up a little settlement. The governor’s scouts have been watching them from afar and noticed their strange powers. With their help, he could defeat his rivals and re-establish control over the state, restore his old position. “You have been to these creatures’ homeworld,” he says. “You know their ways, you can speak their language. Negotiate an alliance with them, and I will let you live.”
Mr. S is split. The aliens have shown themselves capable of terrible cruelty. They might kill him or enslave him. But they have also shown themselves capable of something resembling kindness. In the end he decides they are neither fully good nor fully evil — just alien. And his own people now seem as alien to him as his former abductors.
So Mr. S heads to the alien settlement, where once again he finds dystopian squalor and shocking ignorance combined with fantastic technology. The aliens are unfamiliar with even the basics of agriculture and desperate for aid. He quickly makes himself indispensable, and although he successfully gets the ex-governor his treaty, he starts forming grander plans. What if he could use these aliens as a tool to unite the warring bands of survivors? Break the ex-governor’s stranglehold on the region? Start rebuilding civilization? What if he could make something completely new, a merger of American ingenuity and alien technology?
Gradually establishing a base for himself in the alien colony, he starts sending out feelers to the local warlords and bands of survivors, speaking of the aliens’ power, implying but never stating outright that such power could be theirs. At first it seems to be working. The warlords treat him as an equal, start to listen to his ideas. They just need one little push. He decides to try an insane bluff.
The apocalypse, he reveals, was no plague but a bioengineered alien superweapon, an attack unleashed by their warships in retaliation for some offense real or imagined. The aliens have brought caches of this weapon from their homeworld and buried it underneath their colony. If they are crossed, they will unleash a second cataclysm, killing even the scattered survivors who made it through the first. And the one who manipulates the aliens, who can unleash their wrath upon a target of his choosing and who is thus unstoppable? This guy.
Just as he seems on the verge of some success, Mr. S takes a step too far. He tries to free himself from his old nemesis the ex-governor by “warning” the aliens of his plot to kill them; the alien leader discovers the subterfuge and the strike against the ex-governor never takes place. When the surviving Americans learn of this betrayal, they accuse Mr. S of going native and turn against him en masse. He dies a few months later of what is suspected to be poison, perhaps planted by one of the governor’s men. The aliens seem to take it in stride.
And then a few generations later, they kill nearly everyone. Mercilessly. They do it while praising and admiring their victims. When their genocide is over, they make loud protestations of regret, and try to placate the survivors with gifts. But they do not stop until the massacre is complete. They are neither fully good nor fully evil — just alien.