TUESDAY: Amber Alert


Copyright is held by the author.

ROMAN KOPMAN, a 50-year-old museum guide, awoke at the crack of dawn two days before Christmas, just as he had done for the previous 25 years. He was about to shower when the monotonous voice of a newscaster interrupted him.

“Oumuamua, the interstellar cigar-shaped object that entered our solar system in mid-December, seems to be gaining speed. Although most people attribute the acceleration to a natural phenomenon, such as the impact of solid hydrogen on the object’s surface, NASA has issued an amber alert in case the UFO or its prospective inhabitants represent a risk to humankind.”

The report stirred the embers of a nagging suspicion that had pursued Roman for the last few days. He could not exactly say why, but it touched a nerve. As he struggled to digest his half-eaten breakfast and the avalanche of information from the radio report, the clock struck eight and told him he was late for work.

The early morning rush hour in the port city of Gdansk greeted him with the frenzied blaring of car horns. The sky was clear, with no clouds in sight, and despite the morning’s nippy air, the day was sure to warm up. By noon, people would swarm the shopping malls, looking for last-minute Christmas gifts and tinsel paper. He should have also gone shopping, but all he could think about was Oumuamua and what it represented for the planet’s future.

It usually took him less than ten minutes to walk from his flat to the Old Town, where the Amber Museum was. Some visitors to the museum confessed they felt uneasy when they found out the place used to be a medieval torture chamber. It was unsettling, they said, to look at wonderfully crafted bracelets, filigree Trollbeads, and zodiac signs set in silver and platinum in a place where, five centuries previously, medieval psychopaths forced their captives to confess crimes they probably hadn’t committed. Regardless of the building’s origins, Roman admired its gargoyle-covered roof and slender brick tower, which housed the world’s most comprehensive amber collection.

The guard at the museum door gave him a reproachful look as soon as he saw him.

“Nearly half past eight, Mr. Kopman! The director has already asked about you.”

Roman ignored the reprimand, ran past the director’s office door, and headed to the second floor, which housed the amber collection.

The pieces in the display cases were mounted on black velvet to contrast with the amber hues: treacle rings, toffee pendants, butterscotch necklaces, and leaf-shaped earrings in the warm tone of ripe tangerines. The most remarkable was a 10-centimeter carving of something that resembled a rocket ready for takeoff. Inside, visible through the transparent surface, was a giant prehistoric insect, each piece clearly identifiable: a segmented body, a pair of wings, three pairs of long, spindly legs, and extended mouthparts—all preserved for eternity in Baltic resin.

He’d been worrying about this particular item for the past few days. Despite being locked up in the case with the rest of the antiques for the night, it was always slightly off-centre the next day, the velvet wrinkled, and the nose part of the sculpture pointed in different directions.

Roman knew the precise location of every piece in the collection and could recite its estimated age and weight in grams, so he knew he wasn’t going crazy. Not for nothing had he spent the previous two decades explaining to visitors the methods used to carve the pieces and where the fossilized gemstone was first discovered along the Baltic shore.

He was very good at his job and particularly liked talking to kids because they listened intently and seemed to enjoy his stories in a way that adults didn’t.

“As you can see, each amber is unique. If the piece is honey-coloured and see-through, it was probably made outside the tree from resin that poured down the bark and floated in cold, salty water for millions of years.”

He’d pick up a caramel-coloured dragon that the kids loved and let them hold it for a few seconds.

“There are people who practice a different kind of medicine, not like the white-coated doctors who chase you down with syringes and vaccines. They call amber “sundrops” or “tears of gods” and think that wearing an amber amulet will protect you from evil spirits.”

He enjoyed the look of surprise on their faces as they caressed the dragon’s carved surface as if trying to absorb its energy.

To finish his master class, he always took out the weird rocket-shaped piece with the big bug stuck in the middle. As he held it up to the light, he could hear the shocked gasps as the kids examined the exoskeleton and proboscis, with what looked like a drop of liquid at the tip.

“This one is an insect that lived thousands, if not millions of years ago. We know it’s a female because only lady mosquitos feed on blood. Males like flower nectar best.”

“So mosquito boys are sissies!” one of the girls laughed and elbowed her friend.

“Not exactly. Everyone has a job in the natural world, and both male and female mosquitoes like to lick sugary surfaces. The female only needs the protein in the blood when she is about to lay eggs,” Roman explained patiently.

“This female here, let’s call her Millicent, must have gotten stuck in the resin right after biting someone because there is still a dark drop on the tip of her proboscis and what looks like a thin line of liquid inside it. She probably munched on a big animal like a mammoth, a sabre-toothed tiger, or maybe even Nick the Neanderthal or Harriett Homo Sapiens, one of our ancestors. But we won’t know for sure unless we drill into the amber, get a drop, and test it for DNA.”

“Nick, the gentleman called you a Neanderthal,” another little girl squealed while the named individual pulled on her ponytail.

Following the presentation, the youngsters raced about the room, buzzing like insects trying to bite each other. Roman grinned. Such moments made his job worthwhile. The kids learned about amber as well as human prehistory.

So when he saw a slight shift in the position of the engraved artifact, he thought he couldn’t be wrong. He always placed it in the same spot in the display case: in the centre of the fabric, with the topmost triangular part facing the window. Yet, when he opened the cabinet over the last three days, it had been moved so slightly that only he would notice.

On the fourth day, his worry became so intense that he decided to apprehend the visitor who messed with the displays but took nothing. He walked fast, trying to escape the drizzle that was hesitating whether to turn into a heavy downpour or cease altogether.

As he reached the Old Town, he could see the museum, devastated during WWII but reconstructed to its medieval magnificence using old photographs. He raised his eyes to the second story. A weird greenish light was streaming through the curtainless window despite the darkness. He took his keys, turned off the security system, and entered the gallery.

His first thought upon entering the exhibition room was that, despite NASA’s seven decades of denials, the Roswell incident was not a hoax because standing near the display case was a short, grey-skinned, hairless creature with almond-shaped eyes, wide nostrils, and what appeared to be a slit where a human mouth would be. His three-fingered right hand was holding . . . the amber carving with Millicent, the Mosquito trapped inside.

The creature looked up and blinked his (or her) lash-less eyelids. The mouth-slit made a high-pitched noise, clearly an expression of surprise.

At first glance, the stranger looked like a mad surgeon had put him together from random body parts, completely violating the laws of physics and human anatomy. He swayed gently on spider-thin legs, and his tummy was swollen as if he had just gobbled up a baby elephant. And while Roman initially thought he was utterly hairless, he now could see some thistledown tufts under the chin, like Tutankhamun’s funeral mask’s beard.

The fully dressed, middle-aged human and the grey, naked alien exchanged glances before the creature shrieked again and produced a small box in his free hand. It crackled, coughed, and spat static. Then followed a voice that sounded like Stephen Hawking’s synthesized, computer-generated baritone, with volume and pitch processed through an acoustic filter.

“Need . . . amber . . . insect . . .” said the box, followed by a sequence of crackles and some more spitting.

The message was plain. The alien was after the carving, or more specifically, the mosquito trapped inside. What Roman couldn’t figure out was why he needed it. But just as he was about to inquire, the box buzzed again.

“Mother sick . . . need blood . . .”

Roman realized that the creature could hear his thoughts.

“Where is Mother?” He asked in his head.

The alien, whom Roman was starting to think of as simply Al, answered through the box and pointed at the sky.

“Ship . . . human call Oumuamua . . .”

Roman nodded in understanding.

“Mosquito bite mother . . . mosquito frozen . . . mother need blood . . .”

“So you have been moving the piece all along, have you?” Roman asked silently. “But why not simply take it out?”

“Human object . . . no teletransportation . . .” the box screeched. 

So that was the problem! Al could come and go as he pleased, traverse walls, and rearrange his molecular structure, but he had no control over man-made objects. He couldn’t take the carving with him.

“No blood . . . Mother die . . .”

The triangular face expressed unfathomable sadness, and the black eyes turned almost liquid with tears.

Not quite believing his nerve, Roman took a step forward, but Al retreated, threw his hands to his eyes, and peered at Roman through his three fingers as the amber fell to the floor.

“Don’t be scared,” Roman thought as he took another step, fearful that Al might flee the room in the same manner he had entered it.

“I want to help.”

The extraterrestrial quickly relaxed, his spindly arms dropped to his sides still as homing doves, and the moisture in his eyes was replaced by doubt and something approximating joy: momentary, fleeting, but indisputably joy. The mouth-slit strained as he struggled to articulate one word: help . . .

Roman moved closer and picked up the carving from the floor.

“We’ll have to get it out of here the old-fashioned way — through the door,” he said aloud this time, slipping the piece into his coat pocket.

“We’ll meet in the main square by the Poseidon fountain in 20 minutes.”

The puzzled expression on Al’s deltoid face made Roman chuckle.

“You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you? Poseidon? Wait a moment”.

He reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out his phone.

“Here, look.”

He Googled the Poseidon fountain and showed the screen to Al, who let out a burp, which Roman took for agreement.

As he put the phone away, the alien moved toward Roman and delicately got hold of his left hand. His skin, soft and cold to the touch, looked blue and was a little damp. It throbbed, and for a moment, Roman felt like he was holding the tail of a fish.

He put Roman’s hand on his chest, just above where human ribs would be, and gently pressed against his flesh. The area turned transparent, revealing an oval organ, broader at the bottom and tapering towards the apex. It was pumping a substance that the alien desperately needed for someone he called mother. It pulsated against the ribs like a human heart would.

“Friend . . .” The alien whispered through his mouth-slit, then vanished in a swish of disintegrating molecules before Roman could blink.


On Christmas Eve, Roman was getting ready as usual for work when he heard the reporter’s drone-like voice again.

“Shortly after midnight, the object referred to as Oumuamua vanished just as abruptly as it had materialized. It was spotted by two helicopter pilots around 30 miles to the north of the Baltic coast. So, what precisely was that cigar-shaped object? Was it a meteorological phenomenon or an interstellar spacecraft on a reconnaissance mission? Most likely, we will never know. One thing is certain NASA scientists have sighed a sigh of relief and lifted the amber alert.”

Roman turned off the radio, put on his coat, picked up his briefcase, and left the flat.

The doorman greeted him cheerfully: “Happy Christmas, Mr. Kopman.”

Roman reciprocated similarly. 

He knew there would be a lot of explaining to do, Christmas or not. How would he tell the director that the finest piece in the second-floor collection was missing and the only person with access and key was Roman Kopman? 

But the worry was short-lived – he smiled and ran up, taking two stairs at a time. It didn’t matter because he had his own Christmas miracle! He helped save someone’s mother, and he had a friend somewhere in a galaxy far from the coastal city of Gdansk, filled with the angry dash of pedestrians with their Christmas shopping. And it was a friendship that went beyond a simple handshake. 

He looked towards the sky, and although he knew there was no way Al could hear him, he shouted: “Happy Christmas, amber friend! Happy Christmas!” 


Image of J. B. Polk with santa hat on.

Polish by birth, a citizen of the world by choice. First story short-listed for the Irish Independent/Hennessy Awards, Ireland, 1996. Since she went back to writing fiction in 2020, 75 of her stories, flash fiction and non-fiction, have been accepted for publication. She has recently won 1st prize in the  International Human Rights  Arts Movement literary contest for her short story “A Concert for an Absent Audience”.