Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams





Come-from-aways think it’s the tides that brings the wreckage in, but any local child will tell you the truth of the matter. You can have fifty fine days in a row and the beaches will be clean and empty, except for the usual haul of rockweed, driftwood, and old plastic bottles. Fifty fine days, and then there’ll come a thick, foggy night of the sort we do so well around here, and the next morning there it’ll be—a rocket engine from an alien spaceship, or a cracked satellite dish as big as a bus, half-buried in the sand down on Bartlett’s Beach.

I found out that Shauna was pregnant on one of those thick, foggy nights. She told me over the phone. She said she wanted to come tell me in person, but her dad was out with the truck. She wasn’t crying or nothing. She just sounded kind of tired and sad. After she finished speaking, there was a long silence while she waited for me to say something, but I was on the old rotary phone in the kitchen, and my mom was within easy earshot, and I wouldn’t have known what to say anyway. So we both just said goodbye and hung up.

That night I bundled myself up in coat, hat, and scarf and trudged through the half-frozen mud down to the wharf, the fog wet against my cheeks. There’s an old dory down in Peter Saulnier’s shed that he gives me the use of sometimes. Last summer, I ran a little ferry service to Gull Island. You can walk to the island at low tide, but tourists don’t always know that, and if they arrived at high tide they would pay me five dollars for the crossing. If they arrived at low tide, on the other hand, they might walk to the island and fall asleep sunbathing, and I would have to go and rescue them when they woke up and found themselves marooned. Those ones would also pay me the five dollars.

I always liked rowing that dory. I did some of my best thinking going back and forth between Gull Island and the beach. There’s something simple and clear about the effort of straining at the oars, while the waves slap wetly against the sides. There’s also something about it that makes me think of sex, and maybe that’s why I went and fetched it on the night I found out that Shauna was pregnant.

I opened the shed as quietly as I could, not wanting to wake Peter’s dogs, and dragged the dory over the dunes and onto the beach. It was so dark I couldn’t even see where the waves began, so I just dragged the boat along the sand until I felt the seawater soaking into my boots. Then I jumped in and began to row.

• • • •

The fog brings the wreckage in, and it’s the wreckage of a space-faring civilization. Those are the local facts. There are various theories to explain those facts, and they depend on who’s doing the telling.

Joey Outhouse reckons we’re an alien dumping ground.

“Just look around you,” he’ll say, if he’s pressed and has had a whiff or two of rum. “Imagine looking down on the Earth from space, and thinking to yourself, ‘Now, where am I going to throw all my old trash? The shit nobody wants any more?’ Well, I’m telling you, boy, those aliens looked down and they went all around the world and this was the place they chose. And be honest: Does that surprise you? It don’t surprise me one bit. Just look around you!”

But old Bob Piecemate, who’s been to college and fancies himself an intellectual, takes a different view on the issue.

“There’s always been something special about this area,” he says. “We’re close to a portal of some sort. Ley lines intersecting and whatnot. That’s where the fog comes from. It’s no earthly fog. Nobody who’s been out in it can claim it is. The portal opens, and the fog flows out of it. And our dimension is like a bridge. And sometimes, while a spacecraft is passing from one dimension to the other, a bit gets caught and breaks off.”

• • • •

As I rowed through the fog, I thought about the letters of acceptance on the kitchen table, and my mom so thrilled that I would be going to college. That was impossible now, of course. I thought about the sort of job I would be able to get in town, and knew there were no jobs to be had, now that the tourist ferry from Maine was no longer running and no one was buying lobster on account of the recession. I thought about leaving for the city, but I knew that Shauna would want to stay near her family and her church.

This whole town is like Gull Island, I thought. If you stay too long, it becomes impossible to leave. A piece of you catches and you have to break it off if you want to get away.

I knew after five minutes that I had overshot the island, but I kept rowing anyway, pulling blindly into the fog until even the orange smudge of the lights on Killam’s Wharf had disappeared. And then I was alone.

It was a still night, and I felt that I was rowing through a big, cold absence. I thought that this must be what it’s like to be in outer space, floating through so much nothingness that all the effort you can give won’t make a damn bit of difference, because you’ll never get where you’re going.

It occurred to me that I would be able to see stars if I were in space, but it was too foggy for that. But then, all of a sudden, I could see stars, a whole galaxy of them, spread out below me, underneath the water. And they weren’t the reflections of stars neither, I can promise you that. Above my head the fog was still as thick as stew. But below me—far, far below—the stars burned bright and clear.

Even on a still night like that one, the ocean is always moving, but those stars didn’t move. They just hung steady, as if the water were nothing but a thin film, and I was looking down through it at something beyond.

Well, I stared into that starry, submarine sky for a long while. I stared until my feet had gone numb and I could barely move my muscles, and I knew that I should start rowing for land or I would freeze to death. But I no longer knew which way land lay. There were no clues to be had out there in the fog.

I curled into a ball and shivered in the bottom of the boat, muscles tensed as if bracing for a blow, as if the cold could be taken on the chin. The fog and saltwater slosh had soaked through my jacket, and I wondered if I should take it off or keep it on. I knew that wearing wet things could do more harm than good. But wasn’t that only true for some materials and not others? What was that jacket even made of? I knew that some people get a stupid urge to strip off their clothes when they’re hypothermic, so I didn’t trust my gut. I kept the coat on.

I couldn’t help but think about Shauna being out there with me. Maybe we would both give in to that stupid urge, and strip naked together, out there in the cold. Or maybe it wouldn’t have been stupid with another person there. Maybe that would have been the perfect way to share body heat. I couldn’t decide.

I used to fantasize about stuff like that, before I had a girlfriend, back when sex was still a foggy shape on the horizon. I would create these scenarios in which me and a girl would have to get naked together. We were hostages, forced to strip at gunpoint; or we were castaways on a desert island and we had to use our clothes as bandages or rope. We would huddle together for warmth, or comfort, or simply because our shelter was too small not to huddle together, and then . . .

And then I didn’t know what. I don’t think I got beyond that until later. And later the circumstances didn’t matter.

But this would have been a good one, I thought, even as I lay there shivering and miserable. Me and a girl in a dory, lost in fog, our clothes sopping wet, hypothermia setting in. We would have no choice but to get naked and hold each other close. We would wrap around each other, flesh-to-flesh. I would feel the heat of her breath on my shoulder, the squash of her breasts against my chest.

• • • •

There’s a plastic container under the bench at the dory’s stern that contains a first aid kit and a flare gun, so I forced myself to sit up and fumble at it, with my numb fingers, until I got it open. I got out the bright orange pistol and loaded a bright orange flare and pointed the pistol skyward, but then I reconsidered. There was nothing but fog up there. It would swallow the flare whole. So I pointed the pistol down at the clear, starry sky beneath the water. I could hardly feel my finger on the trigger, and I fell on my rear end in surprise as the pistol kicked and the bright, noisy blaze splashed into the water.

The flare didn’t fizzle and drown as it should have. Instead, it ripped through the film of water and burst out the other side in a mist of saltwater droplets. And then it was burning there on the other side of the sea, a newborn star, messy and furious, falling into the galaxy.

There’s no oxygen in space, and fire needs oxygen to burn. I know that much. But that flare kept burning anyway as it fell.

And why not? The other stars burn in vacuum, somehow.

And then there was something else moving down there. I don’t know if it followed my flare or if it was coming this way anyway. It was big, and growing bigger by the second. I thought it might have been a whale—but no, its lines were too precise. It was a perfect circle, and it was glowing. It looked like metal, glinting in the starlight.

To this day, I don’t know if Joey Outhouse was right and it was a piece of space junk, or if Bob Piecemate was right and it was a spacecraft that got caught in our dimension. But it came spinning through space, up towards the surface of the sea, larger and larger, until it was right below me, just beyond that film of water.

With a great splash, it breached the surface, lifting my dory onto its fuselage. Water streamed over its sleek metal curves as it heaved up and up, finding its equilibrium on the ocean. Even in my boat I could feel its warmth rising around me, so I crawled out of the dory to press myself against its hot metal flank.

• • • •

Peter Saulnier found me the next morning on Bartlett’s Beach, lying unconscious in the sand beside the flying saucer. He brought me to the hospital and got me fixed up. I was all right, just a little dehydrated. I don’t know how to make sense of it, but that flying saucer had kept me alive with its warmth, and it carried me back to shore. Peter Saulnier never did get his dory back. I felt bad for that.

• • • •

Shauna and I built our house from the wreckage of the saucer. It’s a strange, circular house with low, curving ceilings, a huge domed skylight, and a toilet designed for an alien anatomy. We got Artie Mayfield to pull it up out of the sand with his backhoe, and drag it to the spit of land that juts from Gull Island’s western edge. We bought the land for a song. Nobody wants to live in a spot so exposed to the weather. But the saucer is sleek and vacuum-tight, so when the winter storms come, we barely notice.

We’ve started something of a fad in town. Last month a glittering geodesic dome washed up on the beach and Joan Grainger claimed it for use as a greenhouse. Shawn Nickerson is using the nosecone of a rocket as a gravel silo, and Dan Smith now powers his house with the solar panels from a wrecked satellite.

There’s talk of the ferry service to Maine starting up again, but even without it, we’re beginning to get more come-from-aways in town. They come to see the alien wreckage, and what we’ve done with it. They fall in love with the mystery of the place—that and the cheap property—and they stay. Council’s even considering a tax break for locals who build stuff with the wreckage.

The folk at Shauna’s church say we shouldn’t be living in an alien saucer—unwed and with a child at that—but the tourists love it. They come to Gull Island at low tide to look around our place, and some of them put a donation in the box for little Sarah’s college fund.

We discussed not having her. We even drove up to a bright, clean clinic in the city and the doctor described a process called vacuum aspiration. It made me think of the saucer and its alien technologies. But in the end we had her—awkward and unplanned, like so many of the kids around here. But we’re not going to let her stop us. She’s never going to be an anchor.

We’ve both enrolled in correspondence courses, Shauna and I. It’s going to be a long, slow slog, but we’re going to make it. I know this because we’ve got Sarah now. She makes everything harder, but she gives us a reason to succeed as well. She makes our effort simple and clear. She’s a beacon, wailing in the night, messy and furious, showing us the direction we should be traveling.

I don’t know if we’re an alien dumping ground, or a bridge between dimensions, or something else entirely. But when the tourists come to see the saucer, they sometimes linger too long and the tide comes in. When that happens we invite them in for a cup of tea, and Sarah gets to hear tales from all over the world. And we tell them the local stories in return.

We tell them that it’s not the tide that brings the wreckage in.

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Julian Mortimer Smith

Julian Mortimer Smith

Julian Mortimer Smith has published more than a dozen science fiction and fantasy stories in some of the top speculative fiction venues, including Asimov’s Science Fiction, Terraform, Daily Science Fiction, and AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review. He has also written non-fiction articles about subjects such as the Shag Harbour UFO incident and the North American Conkers Championship.

He currently lives in a small lobstering town in southwest Nova Scotia, Canada, where he writes website copy by day and spec fic by night. He is an avid board gamer and former military clarinetist. You can find out more at