The call came through as I paced outside the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, puffing on an e-cig and watching my breath turn to vapor in the chill. “Hello?” The bald, skeletal image of a stranger stared back at me on my phone.
“Ava,” he whispered. “Oh, Ava.”
It took me a few seconds to regain my composure. “Dad?” I said.
“Promise me.” And those two words turned into our final disagreement—yet one more thing I have you to thank for. We argued about you, about whether I should notify you of his death when the time came. He begged me to tell you about Katie. And about the Needlers and the role I played. With the disruptions to Earth’s satellites following the EMP, I’m not sure how much information has already reached Luna 1, but make no mistake, I’m only telling you this because Dad made me promise. You see, Mother, despite everything you’ve done, he still believed in you, still believed you cared. And when you get down to it, I guess I loved him more than I hate you. So here you have it.
• • • •
I found out about the starships on a snowy Thanksgiving afternoon five years ago, a week before the rest of the world.
Katie had just turned twelve—yes, you have a granddaughter—and we’d been folding orange napkins while Dad shouted instructions from the kitchen. This was Katie’s first time helping her grandfather prepare the meal, so she was especially stoked.
“Grandpa swears my gravy is to die for.”
“I have no doubt,” I said. “You’ve obviously inherited the homemaking gene from your Grandpa.”
“It skips a generation!” Dad shouted from the kitchen. “Katie! Can you come in here? I need you.”
That’s when my phone beeped. I hesitated when I saw “Archie Melendez-NASA” flash on the screen. I’d been doing consulting work with Archie for about six months, ever since he’d read the article about me in Neuroscience. Archie wanted me for his study, and being out of work and cash-hungry at the time, the gig appealed to me. The downside? Archie had no respect for the work/home boundary.
“I have news.”
“Archie, can’t it wait until tomorrow? It’s Thanksgiving, for God’s sake.”
“Ariel BLV23 just did something very unusual.”
“Define ‘unusual.’” I’d been hearing about the comet for weeks from colleagues at work. The object had emerged from deep in the Oort Cloud and generated immediate attention because of its massive, elongated shape. Unusual for a comet, I’d been told.
“We’ve detected transmissions,” he said.
“What do you mean? What kind of transmissions?”
“A string of ascending and descending prime numbers. Accompanied by . . . symphonies, I guess you could call them. There’s no doubt, Ava. The signals are intelligent.”
Dad entered the room carrying a turkey on a platter. He shot me a look.
“That isn’t even the half of it,” Archie said. “Its trajectory has shifted. It’s on course to intersect with Earth’s orbit.”
I managed to find my voice and asked about the object’s speed.
“At its current rate of deceleration, it’ll reach us in three years.”
“We need to coordinate our response to the transmission, prepare a press release. And our research with you becomes even more important now.”
Does it? I thought. I couldn’t see the connection.
Then it hit me: Archie wanted me to try to read the goddamned aliens. “Okay, I’ll be in first thing in the morning.”
“There’s already a car on its way to take you to JFK.”
“We’re all gathering at the Canberra Complex. NASA personnel, plus the ESA team. We need to get a jump on the Iranians and the Chinese.”
I suppose I could have told Archie we had years to figure this all out, that it was Thanksgiving and I needed to spend it with my family. But I was overwhelmed by the news, and flattered that Archie thought I could make some contribution. In three years the aliens in the needle-shaped ship—aliens!—would arrive and transform our world in ways we couldn’t even imagine. (It took us all of about three seconds, by the way, before we’d nicknamed them “Needlers.”)
I don’t remember how Dad reacted to the news. Everything after that single phone call blurs now into a jumble of fragmented memories. I remember Katie storming into her bedroom and slamming the door. I remember packing my bag. Saying goodbye. I must have said goodbye, right?
I just know I never got to try Katie’s gravy.
• • • •
The most contentiously debated topic was related to the nature of the Needler vessel. Was it an automated probe or a manned spaceship? The European team believed the vessel’s sub-light speeds made it unfeasible for biological beings to survive the interstellar distances—unless, that is, the Needlers had a hell of a long lifespan or advanced stasis technology. NASA scientists fell firmly in the Generation Ship camp; the massive ship, after all, could accommodate Beijing—with room to spare. Generations of space travelers could have lived and died on that vessel during the centuries-long passage between the stars.
That first year the traditional rivalries between ESA and NASA fell by the wayside. Negotiations resulted in the formation of a coalition of experts tasked with preparing for interaction with the aliens. As the wunderkind of space neuroscience, Archie made the cut. Everyone wondered what the effect of traveling through space—maybe for centuries—would be on alien physiology and psychology. Archie, of course, emphasized the difficulty of measuring those effects when we didn’t have a starting point from which to evaluate the aliens. But the consensus nonetheless was to include an array of experts who might give us the best shot at understanding the Needlers. That’s where Archie thought my skills might come in handy.
• • • •
The attention deficit disorder that made me prone to temper tantrums in public continued long after you left. Likewise, my aversion to human touch. I can imagine how difficult this must have made things for a young mother like you, dealing with a shrieking child who you couldn’t calm down, who you couldn’t touch without triggering another meltdown. This must have frustrated you to no end.
I remember spending most of my time with Dad or the nanny while you threw yourself into your work with EncelaCorp. At the time, of course, all I knew was that you were rarely around. An exception to this rule was on the sunny Saturday morning you drove me to Rockaway Beach. Do you remember? I wanted to do nothing but observe the yappy lapdogs being walked by their owners and especially an excited border collie that fetched a red Frisbee. Instead, you tried to force me to swim, and when I cried and fought you, you picked me up and rushed away from the shore. I couldn’t make you understand. I wound up throwing myself on the sand while you wrestled with me, shouted at me, until I bit your index finger.
That’s when you stormed off and left me alone, crying. In hindsight, I’m sure you didn’t go very far. You probably retreated behind the beach chair vendors to compose yourself. You wouldn’t have left a bawling, five-year-old by herself on a beach, right? Ten minutes later, after I’d finally calmed down, you returned and yanked me up off the sand. It’s a memory I can’t let go, even after all these years. You were angry—I understood that even then. But you’d come back for me.
• • • •
Communications with anyone outside of Canberra were restricted—and monitored. NASA/ESA couldn’t chance any information being leaked to their rivals in Tehran and Shanghai. Archie arranged to grant me access to the Net every three months so I could chat with Dad and Katie. At first, Katie participated despite the time difference.
“Mom, just come home,” she said. She’d put her hair into pigtails, which made her look 9 instead of 13 and twirled one of the braids around her finger.
“I can’t, Katie. Not yet. I’m involved with critical research here,” I said. “When the aliens arrive, they’re going to help us and teach us to grow as a species. They’re going to change our lives forever.”
“I don’t want our lives to change. I just want you to come home.”
“As soon as I can, I will. I promise.”
The last few calls, she’d been at sleepovers with friends, according to Dad, though I suspected otherwise.
The project demanded my complete attention. I spent my time in meetings where the team responsible for greeting protocols butted heads with military personnel who’d put together their own special “welcome” strategy. The team’s plan was to respond to the transmission with prime numbers and our own music, to let the aliens know we understood their messages. The military reps tried to put the kibosh on those plans. Best to maintain the element of surprise, they argued, whatever the hell that meant. In the end we’d persuaded them of the wisdom of sending the message by highlighting the potential risks of inaction. What if the Iranians established communications with the Needlers first?
The modulated message we transmitted used the same radio frequency as the Needler music. It consisted of a mix of classic and contemporary pieces, agreed upon after weeks of debate, to match the frenetic energy of the alien symphonies. We wanted to impress the Needlers—with Bach and Mozart, the Beatles and Chen Ts’ong, the Hard Knox and Nisa Ndogo. We wanted to show them humanity welcomed them and aspired to follow in their footsteps as grand cosmic explorers—something like that. That was the idea, anyway.
After transmission of the message, we shifted all of our attention to preparing for in-person contact.
• • • •
Let me ask you something. Did you know Dad hired a private investigator to find out if you were dead? That’s how we learned you’d relocated from EncelaCorp’s Nairobi office to the Luna 1 colony, that you’d remarried and had two children. Girls. Bright, oh-so-normal girls, I imagine.
Unlike me. How humiliating it must have been for you to have to walk around with your dumb, defective daughter. That’s why you fled after the initial misdiagnosis on my sixth birthday, isn’t it? That’s why you left it to Dad to deal with my behavioral therapy, to help me with my poor communication skills and clumsiness.
If you’d stayed you could have seen the dramatic progress I made over the next year, the improvement that caused the doctors to question their initial diagnosis of pervasive developmental disorder. You could have listened to the specialists who methodically ruled out various disorders on the autism spectrum (though they found me by no means neurotypical), before diagnosing me as acutely empathetic. Unlike most empathetic people, who understand and relate to the mental states of others based on subtle clues, expressions, body language, my abilities proved to be far more atypical.
For as long as I can remember, I found I was especially attuned to the feelings of animals. I could feel the discomfort of saddled horses whenever Dad took me to the dude ranch at the Catskills every summer. I could sense our pet beagle’s discomfort with the dark dampness of the backyard doghouse.
See what you missed, Mother? Oh, I know your supposed reasons for leaving us behind. Or at least the reasons you gave Dad. Excuse #1: Dad had had a one-night fling while you were pulling some crazy hours at work. You couldn’t forgive his infidelity. Excuse #2: You felt unfulfilled professionally. You couldn’t pass up the adventure of a lifetime, assisting with the engineering plans for the lunar colonies. Excuse #3 (the real reason): Me. You couldn’t cope with my condition.
Dad coped. I coped. I even found a way to use my gift to make a living, a good one. I designed lunar feedlots, factory farms, and slaughterhouses, making them more humane. And when I wearied of helping animals to die comfortably, I concentrated on helping them live comfortably. I assisted engineers with space transportation and holding systems to move animals in zero-g from Earth to Luna 1 and 2 without stressing them. I designed special holding pens for the Long Island Zoo, worked side by side with animal handlers, volunteered at kennels. After the cutbacks at the zoo, I lucked out when Archie read the piece published about my unusual skills with animals, and called for my assistance.
Before the Needlers arrived, Archie had me reading livestock that had spent months in space. With the detection of the alien vessel, however, the focus of my work changed. Archie cared less about the animals I could read than he did about me, about learning the extent of my abilities. To read the Needlers, he needed me to hone my skills and stretch them to their limit. That’s when he proposed enhancements.
Over the next few weeks I allowed medics to extract a swath of cells from my amygdala for analysis. I even let them inject nanites into my insular cortex along with chemicals designed to increase the production of neurotransmitters.
But as far as I could tell, all it did was make me crave pineapple and anchovies.
• • • •
Following the medical procedure, over the next twenty-four months at the Canberra Complex I practiced reading mice, tapeworms, finches, armadillos, peacocks, kangaroos, dolphins, great apes, parrots, piglets, lizards and a dozen different types of cats and dogs. My sensitivities became more pronounced. I’d spent the entire previous month just with honeybees, assessing different emotions as varying pheromones were introduced to the hive. I often couldn’t put into words the particular emotion I sensed. Invertebrates, for example, don’t feel sexual attraction the way a human does. It’s more like a compulsion, an overriding magnetic pull, more akin to getting swept downstream toward a waterfall.
From lizards I sensed what I can only describe as a wave of color, a dull gray. Only Komodo dragons, which were more active, could break through this gray—and only when they hunted; in those cases I identified feelings of excitement and hunger much like my own. The lizards’ other emotions simply didn’t translate.
On one occasion, I sat across from Bhargava, the biologist and anthropologist, and Fitzpatrick, the hybrid neurologist/psychologist/asshole while they conducted one of their many tests on me. Fitz didn’t pretend to hide his contempt for me—he viewed the whole exercise as a waste of time. I had to respect his honesty. Bhargava, on the other hand, seemed to have a genuine fondness for me. I couldn’t say why. When it came to interpreting human reactions and emotions, I was no different from any other person. Maybe if neurotypical humans were more honest with their emotions, I might have stood some chance of reading them accurately. But half the time their true emotions lay buried beneath the layers of lies they’d told themselves. Between all the conflicting feelings and self-repression, reading an animal’s emotions was a cakewalk by comparison. Looking back, I’m not sure how Archie expected me to read aliens when I couldn’t even read my own self-deluded species.
“What’s on the schedule today?” I said. “Please, no more insects.” Since insects were one of the most successful forms of animal life on Earth, Archie argued, the Needlers were more apt to skitter on six legs and wave their antennae at us than go for a jog and sit down for a latte.
We all worried that if the Needlers were insectoid, I might not be able to read them. With ants, I’d detected what I can only describe as a numb, neutral humming. Honeybees, on the other hand, projected certain rudimentary emotions: fear, contentment, shock.
“We’ve got a surprise for today,” Fitz said.
Whatever dumb animal they’d brought—I could sense it wasn’t a monkey or a dolphin or other advanced form of life—sat hidden inside an opaque container so I couldn’t see it.
Fitz took a piece of paper and lit it on fire. He dropped it into the container.
I expected to feel the panic of a skittering rat or chipmunk, but as I settled in and focused, I didn’t sense much initially. Whatever animal it was, it didn’t panic, at least not in any traditional way.
“An unawareness, almost,” I said. “Like an echo of a feeling that’s bigger, slower, struggling to catch up.”
After a few minutes, the reverberations intensified into a sharp, far-off sting that pierced my chest, then nothingness. “It’s dead,” I said. My hands trembled.
Fitz and Bhargava studied the results of my neural patterns in the scanner.
I stood up and staggered toward the door.
“Ava, what’s wrong?” Bhargava said.
“Don’t ever do that to me again.” My voice wavered.
I stumbled back to the table and lifted the divider. Inside the smoke-filled container lay the husk of a burnt shrub.
• • • •
The Canberra Complex had a makeshift bar in the lobby where project members gathered to shoot the shit over watered-down drinks.
“We need to grasp the Needlers’ intentions,” Archie said, sucking on an Amstel.
“I suspect we’ll figure that out the minute the Needlers fire their first weapon.”
“You don’t believe that.” Archie smiled.
He was right. In my heart of hearts I had no doubt the Needlers were coming to nurture us, to protect us and lift our species to the next unimaginable phase of development, whatever that might be.
Archie had a soft spot for me. I thought it might even be romantic in nature. So imagine my surprise when I heard the rumor he was already involved—with Fitzpatrick, no less. The furtive glances, the hand on the shoulder, quickly removed. In hindsight I guess it was pretty obvious. Archie should’ve known better than to be sleeping with one of his subordinates, especially a jerk like Fitz, but with the world’s future in doubt I figured I’d cut the guy some slack.
“It’s Katie’s birthday next week,” I said. “I need to see her.”
“I appreciate the sacrifices you’ve made, Ava, really I do. But if we were to make an exception for you, we’d have to lift the Information Wall for everyone else on the team. Did you know that Hernandez’s brother is getting married? That Atul’s son broke his leg skiing?”
I sipped my drink. Hearing about the travails of family members drove home the point that while we stayed holed up on this base, obsessing over the arrival of the Needlers, the world still went along its merry way.
“Archie, they’re all employees and officers,” I said. “I’m a civilian, a consultant. A consultant who’s only here because you asked.”
“Ava . . . ”
“Just a weekend, Arch.”
I pulled my hair back, displaying the scar in my upper right temple where the medics had drilled into my skull.
Archie sighed and ran his hand over his mouth. “I’ll see what I can do. I may be able to get clearance to open up a vid chat ahead of schedule.”
“No, I’m leaving the base,” I said. “Two days. Give me two days with my daughter. I won’t say a word to her about the project. You can put a patch on me. Listen to every word I say.”
After a long silence Archie said, “The surgical enhancements have made a real difference. The tests show that your sensitivity is off the charts.” He hesitated. “What does it feel like? To be able to peer inside another creature. To know what they’re feeling . . . ”
“It’s more than just knowing what they feel. It’s feeling what they feel. Entering completely into another being’s world—and translating that experience into language. That’s the tricky part. Sometimes I can’t describe the feeling in words.”
He paused. “You can have your two days, but that’s it. Keep it to yourself. You’ll be patched. And the Information Wall has to be maintained. Understood?”
• • • •
Snow froze on the ground, not the white puffy variety but a grey, dirty inch-thick coating that made it difficult to take a step without risking a bad fall. It had been three years since I’d left, and when I strode to the entrance—Dad had painted it a sky-blue that made it unrecognizable—the front door flew open.
“Ava,” Dad said. He went to give me a hug and then caught himself when I flinched. Physical contact still made me uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He took my hands in his, squeezed them.
I set down my bag and shook the snow out of my jacket and mittens while Dad retreated into the kitchen. As I expected, he emerged a minute later with a mug of hot cider.
“Sit, sit, sit,” he said, pointing to the couch. “You can put your things away later.”
“Out with friends,” he said, rolling his eyes in a way that I knew meant a longer conversation on the subject was inevitable.
We sat and he interrogated me about everything from the sleeping facilities at Canberra—I had my own spacious room, but shared a bathroom with a medic assigned to monitor me—to the more obscure policy considerations about contact with the Needlers, which I couldn’t discuss. Not with the patch I was wearing.
“What if the Needlers give us something of tremendous value? I don’t know . . . teleportation technology, cold fusion . . . Which country reaps those benefits?”
“Who do you think, Dad?” I said. “Our corporate sponsors in the good ol’ U.S. of A.—and maybe our loyal allies. Whether we decide to share that technology with anyone else though, who’s to say?”
“Got it,” he said, acknowledging the unspoken fact that it’s “finders keepers” in the game of alien debriefing. And if the Sino-Iranian crew were to beat us to the punch on any of that technology, the shoe would be on the other foot. We’d be flat out of luck.
An hour later while Dad salted the pot of whitefish stew, the front door rattled open and boots stomped on the welcome mat. I ran from the kitchen to the living room and when I saw Katie, I couldn’t believe it. She’d transformed from a scrawny, pigtailed girl into a teenager with bright, gray eyes—a feature that I guess she inherited from you, Mother. When I went to greet her, she held her hands up as if afraid that I’d hug her. “Mom,” she said in a flat voice, deeper than I remembered. She extended her hand and I shook it. When she removed her ski hat, her long blond hair fell to her shoulders, parted down the middle by a six-inch wide bald track.
“Katie!” Daddy said. “What did you do to you hair? And today of all days . . . ”
“So? I got it cut!” She said this in an exasperated manner that didn’t acknowledge the meaning of the distinctive hairdo, a style worn by the militant Isolationists.
I managed to find my voice. “Hey, the Isos have a sensible position.” Not that I agreed with it.
“Damn right we do,” Katie said.
“Language!” Daddy said
I’d heard it all before—as had most of the public, which had been subjected to transportation shutdowns, the firebombing of government offices, and other random protests. Contact with the aliens spelled certain doom for humanity. Interactions between advanced and “primitive” cultures had always resulted in the same outcome: destruction of the latter. A reasonable concern, I supposed, especially when compared to the complaints of the “Xeno-mystics,” who fervently believed the aliens were here to bring us a message about God. Or the Reincarnationists who thought the Needlers were dead people from human history returning home. Or the Protectors who actually encouraged armed conflict with the aliens as a serious—no, the only—viable option. Compared to the theories of these crackpots and religious zealots, Isolationism was an almost scholarly pursuit.
“I’d be an Iso myself,” I said, “except it’s too late in the game to do anything but prepare for contact. The Needlers are already on the way.”
“Well, you can stop trying to communicate with them,” Katie said. “Stop provoking them. Maybe they’d leave us alone if we weren’t sending them so many messages.”
“No, if there’s any hope,” I said, “it lies in understanding them, communicating with them, letting the Needlers know who we are, what’s unique about us, so they can teach us to better ourselves.” Saying it out loud made me believe it even more. The Needlers would extend a hand and help lift humanity up, I was sure of it. Intellectually, I understood that the most likely outcomes were dark and terrifying, but in my heart I didn’t believe the aliens would come all this way to harm us. Not intentionally. Traveling such vast distances to destroy a backwards species seemed like an expensive and pointless proposition. No, I was convinced the Needlers were coming to reveal something, something that would open the universe to us.
“You really think the Needlers care?” Katie said, rolling her eyes. “Have they responded to any of your messages over the past three years?”
I couldn’t answer her because of my patch, so I deflected. “Whether or not they’ve responded, it doesn’t mean we give up.”
“You know what?” Katie said. “If you’ve come all this way just to pick a fight with me, maybe you should just go back to your aliens.”
“Katie!” Dad said.
“Hey, I’m not here to fight with you,” I said. I pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes and she swatted my hand away.
“I’m going out,” she announced to Dad.
“Katie, your mom’s only here for two days . . . ”
“Melinda’s throwing me a surprise birthday party tomorrow and I promised I’d help her get ready. I have to practice looking surprised.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I understand.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Dad said. I hadn’t seen him this angry since the day I’d totaled the car as a teenager without wearing my seatbelt.
“Grandpa, you heard her,” Katie said. “She doesn’t mind.”
“Not a chance,” he said.
“Dad . . . really, it’s okay.” I didn’t want to be the needy mom who came home to dictate her daughter’s schedule.
Dad sighed so loudly it became a wheeze. He picked up his soup bowl and stomped into the kitchen.
Katie and I stared at each other for a full minute until she stood and headed upstairs.
Despite Dad’s scolding, she barely spoke a word that day, and avoided me at every turn until she left to her friend’s party. I saw so much of myself in her that my heart filled to bursting with equal parts love and guilt.
On Sunday morning a new coat of snow had fallen, dressing the trees in the white robes of meditative monks. Dad stood on the porch and kissed my hands.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to wake her?” he said.
“No, let her sleep.”
As the black limo pulled up to the driveway, I glanced up at the second floor window and spotted Katie peeking from behind the blinds. She darted backwards out of sight.
I got in, slammed the car door and stared up at the wobbling blinds.
Over a year later, a week before her High School graduation, Dad called Katie over during one of our vid chats. She stood there sullen and silent until I asked her what she was thinking on that day, what had I done to make her so angry with me. She shook her head in disbelief and said, “Why didn’t you ask me to skip the party?” She paused and ran her hand across her eyes for a second though I didn’t see anything like tears in those steely gray irises. “Why didn’t you care enough to ask me to stay?” And she got up and left.
• • • •
Three months after I returned to Canberra, Dad informed me during a vid chat of Katie’s new boyfriend. “She’s dating one of those long-haired neo-hippies. A Xeno-mystic. I don’t think she sees anything in him. It’s just her way of crying out for attention. Oh, she’d deny it, but she still wants—more than anything—for you to come back and be part of her life.”
“Dad, the Needler ship has accelerated . . . ”
“What was that? You cut out.”
The Information Wall had bleeped out my comment about the Needlers.
“Just that . . . things are getting crazy around here, that’s all. But it won’t be long until I’m home for good, I promise.”
• • • •
Six months later, the Needler ship entered orbit around Earth. It was during this chaotic time that Dad somehow managed to arrange another vid chat off-schedule—so I knew it had to be something serious.
“Is Katie okay?” I said.
That’s when he told me about his leukemia.
“I can’t take care of Katie any more,” he said. “She’s hurt and angry and at that awkward age where she won’t listen to what I have to say anymore. She needs her mother.”
“I haven’t told her. I don’t think she could handle it. You need to come home.”
“I can’t just pick up and leave. I’ll need a few days to wrap things up, but I’ll talk to Archie and make the arrangements.”
Those plans fell by the wayside the next day when the Needlers released two shuttlecraft into the atmosphere—each thirty stories high and identical in shape to the mothership. The U.S. military mistook the ships for missiles and gave the order to launch the nukes. But the Needlers released an EMP that knocked out our satellites, cutting off all communications and preventing coordination of the massive nuclear strike the military had planned as a fallback “if circumstances dictated the necessary defense of God’s beautiful blue world against the soulless alien hordes” blah-blah-blah. You’ve heard the spiel even on Luna 1, I’m sure. Worse, the EMP had caused damage that prevented air travel back to the States for several weeks.
One of the vessels landed on Mount Everest and the other in a park in Santiago, Chile. Archie arranged to transport the team by sea to a Chilean base established a quarter of a mile away from the cordoned-off Parque Bustamente. The ships sat there for months while we tried everything to communicate with them: prime numbers; music; artwork; photographs; video-stream; the text of the Bible (we owed the Red State politicians a few favors); chemical formulas; math theorems. Even an old-fashioned knock on the door of their spaceship.
The Needlers showed no interest.
• • • •
Dad occasionally sent messages updating me on his treatments, but he never asked me about coming home again. He sent me a link to live-feed video of Katie’s High School graduation. It tickled me to think that Katie would see my holo-image occupying a seat in the first row. I was sitting alone in my bedroom watching the ceremony when a fist pounded on my door.
It was Fitzpatrick.
“What is it? I’m watching—”
“The ship doors have opened! They’re disembarking.”
I raced down the hallway and out the front door and leapt into a Humvee with Fitz and Bhargava. We sped toward the park and in the three minutes that it took us to get there, a narrow aperture had appeared on the side of the vessel.
We flashed our credentials, pushed past the guards and made our way onto the field.
Two stick-shaped creatures stood on the grass. It took a few seconds for my eyes to make sense of the images. The aliens had no heads or eyes, no mouths; they looked like tall silver spikes with colorful indentations that resembled hieroglyphics circling their midsections. Dozens of delicate, spindly “arms” and “legs” of varying lengths spidered out of their torsos as they moved.
That’s when one of the officers guarding the cordoned-off park jumped a barricade on the other side of the field and stood in the Needlers’ path.
“What the hell?” I yelled.
The officer removed his helmet, revealing a bald track down the center of his head.
The other officers on the perimeter raised their guns. “Someone stop him!” a voice from the sidelines screamed.
“No!” I shouted. “The Needlers are in the line of fire.”
“We don’t need you!” the Isolationist said. “You don’t belong here!”
He drew a revolver from his holster and pulled the trigger. The weapon made a clicking noise, but failed to discharge. All around us, the same impotent clicking came from scores of guns targeting the Iso.
The Needlers edged forward: slow motion, fast forward, slow motion, fast forward. Using three thread-like “arms” with sharp pincers at the end, one of them lifted a quartz rock off the grass and cradled it against its metallic midsection. The Iso continued shouting, moving in the direction of the Needlers. I charged across the field and threw myself at his legs from behind, tackling him before he could touch them. As we lay entangled on the ground, he tried to kick free of my grasp. I looked up to see how the Needlers would react. With one of them still clutching the quartz rock, they skirted around us, apparently oblivious to our presence—slow motion, fast forward—and entered an opening on the side of the ship, which closed behind them.
Within seconds, the shuttlecraft lifted off, turning into a speck in the sky. The vessel on Mt. Everest, we would later learn, took off at the exact same time.
• • • •
I’m still trying to understand Dad’s last request. He asked me to do the decent thing. Is that what this message to you is about? Decency? I can’t help but think that he clung to the fantasy of some melodramatic mother-daughter reunion. He always said you’d come back. But I’ve lived my whole goddamned life without you. I sure as hell don’t need you around now.
Archie asked if I would stay in Chile to assist with forensic analyses conducted at the landing site. I told him I had my father’s funeral to attend, that I was flying home the next day—for good this time—more than five years after Archie’s Thanksgiving phone call. I hoped that Katie would find a way to let go of her anger. Dad had mentioned that she spent most of her time either VR clubbing with friends or with her nose buried in her astrobiology text. She still wouldn’t take my calls.
The debate still rages as to why the Needlers went away. Maybe it was our clumsy attempt to answer their initial transmission or our attempted nuclear strike or that dumb Iso shooting at them. Many people are convinced it’s something we did wrong.
There are those who think the Needlers will return, that these were scoutships and a fleet of alien vessels is on its way. But I’m going to confess something to you. Something I haven’t even told Archie.
When the Needlers took their little stroll in the park, I focused and used my empathic skills. I was confident that I would read a great benevolence, a desire to nurture us, to help humanity maximize its potential. I told the others that I’d drawn a total blank, that I sensed no emotion in them I could correlate to a human feeling. But that was a lie. Perhaps the biggest lie I ever told in my life.
The truth is, when I peered into the Needlers’ alien minds I did feel something, something familiar. I sensed an utter, cavernous indifference.
So here’s what I think—and it’s the way most people feel these days. The Needlers left because they finally figured out we weren’t worth their time. And they won’t be coming back. But that’s okay. We’ve been doing just fine without them. No, we won’t be seeing the Needlers again. And who the hell needs them?