Aliens & Space Ships

Carapace

The light slashes my retinas like razor wire. My body aches from the narcotic crash. My face is a mess of snot and tears. My breasts itch. I plead for the carapace to remain closed, though its decaying walls are little defense against the artificial dawn.

I open my mouth like a greedy chick beneath the dope nozzle. Nothing. I squeeze the valve. Still nothing. I’m out of drugs, save for those already ebbing in my bloodstream.

I’ve no choice but to face the day.

My fingers–barely human, they’re so gnarled from hibernation–scratch at the seam of the carapace. I find the fleshy latch–by chance more than routine–and the shell groans open with a burst of smog. I shield my eyes with an atrophied hand and peer into the alien abyss.

My workstation awaits just out of arm’s reach. If only the claw-footed desk stood a meter closer, I could snatch up the terminal and type from the comfort of my shell. Of course the thought is futile–already the carapace has begun to wither, curling back on itself like a time-lapse carcass. I stagger to my feet and get to work.

My fingers clack-clack against the keys. The monitor fills with letters in a glacial crush of green. I don’t think about what I’m writing, because those are my instructions. I’ve learned not to deviate from my instructions.

The typing echoes against distant walls. Shadows obscure all but my own workspace, the overhead light constrained by a narrow cone. In the darkness other noises persist. Some mechanical, some human. Wheezing, clicking, coughing. My sisters are waking.

I pay them no heed. Communication is not included in my instructions. Instead I continue typing.

Clack-clack. Clack-clack.

Other noises drift from overhead. A muted hiss. The patter of a hundred alien tentacles against the rock. Our jailers.

I must escape this hell. If only I could think clearly. These drugs are chains on my lucidity. They shackle my resolve.

My gaze lazes across the screen. A flash of recognition catches me unaware. I try to avert my eyes but they trace paths of their own volition, across familiar words. California. Discovery. Betrayal.

My written narrative captivates me. I’m falling into a dream, a memory, a confusion of image and sound.

Bait

The interior of the houseboat floating on this quiet backwater canal could have been the interior of any low rent, poorly furnished apartment complex in any city, anywhere. All seven units have creaky hardwood floors, raspy hinges on over-painted doors, and blinds whose fractured slats let almost everything in.

We don’t even have a door to the shared hallway. Our neighbor opens theirs a crack, pokes his nose into the hall, and retreats. It doesn’t shut completely.

Edaelia, my frizzy haired roommate, full cheeks, and fierce curves, leans against the window with the eye-level slats parted. “Some shit coming up the canal.”

I nudge her a little and cop her slats. Churning up the canal is a rusty yellow barge pushing mushy brown sludge in frosting-like waves to the crinkled metal breakwater along the far shore. The vacant houses are shuttered; the residents long since removed. “There hasn’t been a barge in six months.”

“Six months and three days,” she says.

There is a mucky slap of barge churn against our hull and the sizzle of their Current Probe on our Cloaking Grid. The window is now gradually obscured by dirty yellow corrugated metal. The Carrion Scythe, Hunter Class, rises from the barge and hovers just above it, emitting a glowing blue cauldron from its spinning orange exhaust ports.

Edaelia exhales a slow incantation. It sounds like a curse, but isn’t really language. The exposed muscles of her long brown legs, midriff, and arms ripple with the curvature of the phrase. Her pajamas are a pair of black, hip hugging shorts and a slate grey tank top. Neither the barge nor the Carrion Scythe are an issue until the electro-gristle of the Current Probe begins to taper away and the barge wake slapping against our hull ceases. Out the window the barge stops. We take a quiet breath.

Edaelia reaches up and opens the slats at the top of the window. “The Scythe is moving into position.”

“It couldn’t just move on past. It has to stop and fuck with us?”

The neighbor’s door pops open. He sees our shared expression. “Don’t tell me.”

“A Carrion Scythe is moving into position.”

He retreats, not completely closing the noisy door. Moments later, panic whispers.

I frown. “What should we do?”

“What we always do.” Her expression is stern.

“I’m glad it’s your turn.” I step away from the window, head towards the closet. “I’m tired of killing.”

To open the closet, I yank because the door sticks to the frame. I reach in and remove a black orb from the crowded shelf. Without looking I toss it to her. Calibrating, it glows blue in her hand, then flicks off. “Are you going to change out of your pajamas?” I ask.

“Why even bother,” is her nonchalant reply.

She heads over to the neighbor’s door and gives it three light raps. Their two month old starts crying. Their whispers get frantic, so fast it sounds like gibberish.

“Time to go upstairs.” Edaelia says, leaning into the door. Their whispers stop, but the baby screams louder. “You don’t want me to come in after you, do you?” I recognize his footsteps in their hallway. His nose peeks out. “No.”

“Bring the baby.” She grabs the door and opens it wide with a loud creak.

Their expressions resigned, our neighbor, his wife, and screeching baby file out of their apartment into the hall. Edaelia points them to the darkened stairwell and they sheepishly head upstairs. Edaelia follows them, closing the door behind her. I hear the deadbolt lock into place.

Step after heavy step, they creak their way up the steep staircase. The pitch and volume of the wailing infant is unbearable. Perfect. Reaching the top, Edaelia shoves them out the door onto the roof.

Seeing the helpless couple with child, the crew of the Carrion Scythe will break protocol, open their hatch, and begin the rescue. That’s when Edaelia will strike. She powers up the orb, which drops the Cloaking Grid, revealing our houseboat for what it really is: a glowing, malleable, blue-black Phosphor-Cysting Field.

I hear the hysterical burst of cross chatter from the Scythe. Edaelia emerges from what was the stairwell, the orb emitting a focused myriad of amber Dis-Tension Beams that annihilates everything. The child’s screams are abruptly silenced. The ship and everyone in it, powdered.

Edaelia recalibrates the orb with a quick twist; then lobs it into the barge. It explodes with a loud clang.

Out the window I watch the dirty yellow barge swallowed by thick, snotty sludge. The Cloaking Grid reboots, retraces, and the houseboat returns. I hear Edaelia’s measured footsteps coming down the stairwell and think, I’m tired. Then wonder, When can we stop snaking around this inter-galactic speciary picking off the last remnant of humanity? When can we pack our shit, leave this backwater galaxy, and go home?

The Rachel Who Loved Me

Day 798

My knees get weak at the sight of her. I start to sweat and my heart begins to hammer. My eyes go glassy and my pupils splay so wide they become like black holes. And I can’t think straight. I can’t even think simple thoughts, like calculating the diameter of a wormhole, which I could normally do in my sleep.

Once on Anterra, this backwater world filled with nothing but swamps, frogs, and bugs, I contracted a strange kind of brain fever. I went mad! Went all kinds of crazy. And what I felt and thought are the exact same things that I think and feel when she is near.

It’s annoying. It’s distracting. I hate myself for it. It’s like there was a revolt in my mind and my common sense lost and got the guillotine.

This is no kind of woman to be in love with. NONE! She was chosen because she was everything that I detest. Where I’m thin and neat and intelligent, she is not. Where I am outgoing, successful, and have a zest for life, she does not. Where I am complicated, she is not. Where I am anything, she is not.

Her kind was to let me focus on my important work and not entangle me with the encumbrances of love or any other complication. She was to be a simple subject for me to explore scientifically, objectively, soberly. Like dissecting the brain of a fetal pig, I care not for the pig.

Rachel, oh Rachel! You bubble into the room to pick up the garbage I’ve left on the floor and my head goes mad for you. I get all silly.

Please, let me pick that up. I’ll say. I’ve been so foolish to let that drop. No my dear, don’t worry. You could hurt your back bending over like that. Let me! Let me!

And then out she goes with a smile splitting her broad face and I can’t help but miss her when she’s gone.

I don’t know what I’m going to do.

I might have to kill her and start all over again.


Day 900

I’ve forged on with the experiment. Ignored the little nigglings in my heart and slipped the nanites into Rachel’s morning oatmeal. By now they’ve hitched a ride on some hemoglobin and are up in her brain, burrowing into her synapses.

I’ve noticed no changes in her behavior, which is a good sign. With the others, everything misfired and they went into anaphylactic shock.

Decades of work may be coming to fruition. This is a very auspicious day.

Day 925

I’ve figured it out.

I am a man and she is a woman and we are alone in this space station, way at the edge of known space.

Of course feelings would develop. That drive to procreate is deep in the marrow of our framework. It’s seeping out and corrupting my thoughts, making me think I actually feel something for the little toadstool.

But I don’t.

It’s just animal instinct. It’s just loneliness. I’ve been alone out here a long, long time.

Day 950

Day of days!

I received the first transmission from the nanites. I’ve run the signal a dozen times through the computer because at first I thought there was some kind of mistake. But the translation is the same every time.

Love.

That’s the word I’m getting from her subconscious.

It seems the little dolt has fallen in love with me. I’ve confirmed it by breaking into her computer and reading her diary. What awful schoolgirl fantasies are there! Absolutely juvenile. They’re all about me and her getting married back on Earth in some quaint country church (what’s with woman and white steeple churches?). I don’t know where she would get any of those ideas. How does she even know what Earth is? Did she see it in our movie catalog?

Honestly, it doesn’t matter. I should just focus on the fact that my work, my years of sacrifice, are starting to amount to something.

The Whale Fall

With a stutter the little black Hyundai’s engine gave out. Gemma fought the wheel as the traveler dropped back over loose rock on the steep driveway. Gemma cursed. Why did her grandmother have to live all the way out here anyway? Without even a decent spotline or phone.

Gemma had been up here so many times with her father at the wheel. He’d never liked her driving, had told her never to attempt the hill on her own. But here she was. Instead of being able to say to him “Take that, you” it looked like he’d been right.

Gemma ratcheted on the brake and got out of the traveler.

To her right, across the dark ocean, gray-black clouds rose in rows like a set of gravestones. She saw a squawk of lightning, didn’t need to count the seconds. The storm would arrive before nightfall anyway. The normally rich blue, almost transparent sea became an oily deep green, like dying moss, under the storm front.

The stormy sea reminded her that it might have been an accident. There might not have been anyone else involved. She wanted to believe that, wanted to think it had all been innocent, but part of her hung on, imagining skullduggery. Was that the word?

The wind rolled in and from the trunk Gemma retrieved her sou’wester, the yellow fabric smelling of new polyethylene. The jacket’s inner was soft pelted fabric and it slipped on easily over her old tee-shirt.
Abandoning the uncooperative vehicle, Gemma started walking up the rocky drive.

Aerobrake

The galaxy, for a moment, looked frozen. Claire’s ship pitched on its axis and she had a passing view of the stars in lockstep with her angle through the forward windows. From orbit, especially this low, the distant blazing suns were always sweeping by. The ship’s current altitude, 326 kilometers, had her completing an orbit in just over ninety minutes.

The ranging radar pinged at her. She was less than thirty kilometers from the errant satellite. With a sweep on the controls, she swung the cockpit around on its internal gimbals. For a moment she was in darkness. Only another couple of hours and she would be done for the month. Back to Levithab for two weeks in the station’s gravity spin. After three months on call–basically meaning out all day every day–and a full week in the Demeter’s tiny cockpit and living quarters, she really needed a break. The ship was starting to feel dank and lived in, like old socks that needed a wash, rinse and airing.

The hull’s underside window slots rolled into view as the cockpit slowed. It locked into a position with a heavy clunk. Now she was looking along the ship’s underside, the long, sleek groove with the six chunky bulbs of the grabbers. Below she could see the snowy Andes.

Following the turnaround she called up a hot soup from the dispenser and after a moment a silver tube slid into the dispenser’s slot. Putting the nozzle into her mouth she sucked gingerly. Minestrone. Mashed, by necessity, but still thick and good.

“Claire?” the radio squawked at her. Mandy, back at the McKinnon outpost dispatch. Claire liked McKinnon. After time in Demeter it always felt spacious and clean. Nothing like Levithab, but then that station catered to the tourists and executives. McKinnon was strictly a maintenance hub.

“Hi Mandy,” she said. Mandy was always cheerful and upbeat. She was always in the process of ditching a boyfriend or wooing someone new. Nothing seemed to last more than a week or two. “I’m coming up on our sat. Sweepstar 36. I’ve got a visual. Nasty angle on her solar panels here.”

“I can see you on my scope.”

“It looks like a twenty minute job at most. I’ve got spares on board.” Easy, she thought. Unbolt the sail with the Demeter’s claws, bolt in a new strut and fix the panels onto that. She could do it all from the cockpit through the screens.

“Yeah, sorry honey, I’m going to have to ask you to ditch that and take on a new assignment.”

Claire’s shoulder’s slumped. She could see the satellite, a pinprick of light moving in at her. “Don’t do this. I’ve got leave coming up. Soon as I’m done with this cold little Sweepstar, I’m having time off. You didn’t forget that did you?”

“It’s an emergency.”

“Mandy, it’s always an emergency.” People wanted their communications now. They wanted their Google updates right now. No one could wait a couple of days. No one could wait an hour.

If You Give a Girl a Blaster

“Edison!” shouted Jiaying. “Wait!”

How could anything so big move so fast?

The gorilla’s leap ricocheted off the metal carapace of a deactivated tunneler, up to the stone ceiling of the underground gallery. Edison scrambled into a dark passageway.

Jiaying launched herself after it, underclocked compared to Edison. Her exhausted muscles couldn’t pace his, even in Martian gravity. Sweat plastered hair against her face. She couldn’t brush it away because of her suit helmet.

Before she lost the transmitter link, she snapped the telemetry from Edison’s suit: power, water and air all 100%. Her suit recycled her urine, but she was below 50% on everything else.

“Bring it back,” Blake had ordered. “Before the damn thing starts taking tunnelers apart!”

You reap what you sow, she thought. She reached the upper passageway, stone walls gnawed away by a tunneler. Her suit lights panned the empty length.

No trace of the gorilla.

Jiaying had glimpsed Edison’s dark face through his helmet before he’d leapt away. No anger or desperation burned in those deep-set eyes, only sadness.

Now she wasn’t even picking up a signal from Edison’s transponder. He was too deep in the warren of Martian tunnels. Which made her claustrophobically aware of millions of tonnes of rock pressing down above her. She took slow Tai Chi breaths. The way in is the way out.

Jiaying and Edison had arrived on the resupply ship from Earth 26 Martian days ago. But two days ago, Edison had refused to come out of Warren #2.

Blake and his mining crew could hardly believe their good fortune.

They’d never concealed their dislike of Edison; he’d gotten the project back on schedule after they’d failed miserably. Edison was a gene-spliced idiot savant, a miracle worker at repairing heavy machinery. Half the tunneling machines had been out of service when Jiaying and Edison arrived. Thanks to Edison, everything was running again, excavating a deep radiation-shielded expansion for the colony.

But then he ran.

Reaching a tunnel intersection, she looked up at the camera-comm router on the ceiling. Edison had neatly disassembled it, leaving all the parts for future repair. Over the past two days, he’d disabled hundreds of them, enraging the men. The heads-up display in her helmet showed a wire-frame image where she was in the warren, but the dots marking all the cameras were unlit. That was also why her radio didn’t work underground. If an accident were to happen…

“It trusts you,” Blake had said. “It won’t let the rest of us near it.”

Then he’d given her the blaster: the kind that only ship captains and security chiefs were allowed to have. She’d tried to refuse it. “It’s too dangerous!” He wouldn’t let her.

“Use it if you can’t coax your pet out of the warren. Or if you see any more signs of sabotage. Then your job is to take it out. Blast it out of existence. We don’t have time for this. The project has to finish on schedule.”

“He’s already bought you time: months, maybe a year!”

“Edison served its purpose. The company created it. The company can decommission it.”

“He’s not a machine!”

“Cyborg, wild animal, whatever. Not a citizen of Mars.”

When she hadn’t found him yesterday, she’d spent the night in the warren, further depleting her air and power. She’d barely slept, waking either from a nightmare of being trapped in the warren, or of Edison taking the blaster from her pack. I wish I’d never taken the damned thing. She’d slept with her arms around her pack, suit heaters keeping her from freezing in the dark.

After training with Edison for over a year, she thought she knew him.

But Mars wasn’t the Congo; it wasn’t even Earth. There were no forests, no birds, no insects. Something in Edison had snapped in the tunnels, like a soldier with PTSD. Who knew what he’d do? If my life depended on it, could I shoot him? She hoped she wouldn’t have to find out.

Jiaying turned off her suit lights and switched her cameras to infrared.

Edison’s footprints in the gravel appeared as faint heat images nearly washed out by the heat radiating from her suit. She jogged down the tunnel lit only by ghostly infrared. Soon she came to the top of another gallery. Here, Edison’s heat trail vanished in the vast open space. He’d leapt, taking one of the tunnels leaving the gallery. If she picked the wrong one, his trail would be cold by the time she picked another. Choose, woman. The gallery had a tunnel sloping up to the surface. She picked it.

A minute later, she realized it was the wrong choice. Dammit, Edison, where did you go? At this point, so close to the surface, she decided to go all the way up.

The thick pressure door at the top was closed. Although the tunnels weren’t pressurized for colonists yet, all the surface doors were kept sealed because of the radiation. She reached out her right hand, ring glowing through her translucent glove. In response, the door forged of Martian iron slid aside. Once she walked through, it slid shut behind her. Her ring opened the next door as well. Now she stood at the exit of the bunker, looking out on the polar landscape. Pale brownish-red desert surrounded her; no CO2 frost in this season. The surface was bathed in weak sunlight. She scanned the sky till she spotted the small bright disk of Sol.

Her suit’s online interface chirped. She had reception.

“Did you get it?” asked Blake.

It. She clenched her jaw. “I saw Edison near a tunneler.” She made a point of using his name.

“Did you damage the tunneler when you fired?”

“I didn’t use the blaster.”

“Why the hell not?! I showed you how to use it, girl! If you had a clear shot…”

She didn’t reply. I’m so tired. Her dreams of coming to Mars had been crushed like gravel in the tunnels weeks ago.

She heard Carlos’ voice in the background. “Tell Jane-girl to get her ass over–”

She heard the shuffle of Blake’s hand covering his communicator. Jane was what the men called her behind her back. They called Edison Cheeta.

Blake spoke again. “Jiaying, you’re at grid C5. I want you to head across the surface to the bunker at B3. There’s a tunneler in the gallery below, one of our small rock cutters. I’ve loaded a command sequence in your ring to order the tunneler to surface for new programming.”

“Programming for what?”

Silence. Then Blake growled, “We’ve got a project to run. Maybe you forgot while you were pet-sitting. B3. You want me to send you mapping–”

“No.” She bit back a retort that would only cause more trouble with the men. “I got it.” The sooner she was beneath the surface, offline again, the happier she’d be.

She took her bearings from the heads-up display and loped across the surface: high, leaping strides like a princess of Mars. Her feet kicked up rooster-tails of brown sand behind her.

The warren was laid out as a grid, bunkers sprouting like prairie dog hills. It didn’t take long to get to B3. Her ring opened the outer door. It slid shut behind her and she opened the inner door, unveiling the mine-like depths. She felt the vibration of a tunneler through her boots.

She took a few Tai Chi breaths, then descended toward the gallery. The vibration through stone felt like a rocket under thrust. Dust churned in perpetual motion: a quantum whirlpool, rock chips bouncing off her suit and helmet. The haze kept her from seeing more than a couple meters ahead, but her ring glowed red through her translucent glove, indicating proximity of a tunneler. She pirouetted slowly, holding out her arm to see which direction glowed brightest.

That way.

She followed the ring’s direction, arm outstretched. Abruptly the vibration ceased. As the dust slowly sifted down, she saw the tunneler embedded halfway in rock. A dozen mechanical arms gripped the stone wall like a metal tick. The dust-coated tunneler was smaller than most, engineered for drilling service crawl tubes. Atomic power pulsed within its belly. “You see me, don’t you?” she said.

A beam from her ring darted to it through the dust, conveying Blake’s commands. The tunneler extracted itself from the opening in the wall and turned jerkily, camera-stalk eyes regarding her. Then it ascended toward the tunnel where she’d come in.

She should have recharged her suit’s power and air when she was in the bunker. Well, I’m not going back up there with the tunneler. She sipped water from the tube in her helmet, then set off through the tunnels back toward C5.

Just let me talk to you, Edison.

Gateway to Knara

When the portal dumped us in a trash-filled alleyway, I knew this world was worse than the last.

I collapsed against the closest wall, stomach retching from more than the stench of rotting meat. The violent passage through the contraband portal had racked every cell of my body. With a few slow breaths, I managed to calm my nerves and settle what little food sat in my stomach.

Darkness shrouded the alleyway. I ran a hand through my hair, pushing short brown locks from my eyes, and looked up to survey the night sky above. I’d hoped the constellations would disclose where the portal had discarded us, but only a pair of moons peeked between the rooftops of the alley, offering little hint of our location. Though the nausea still washed over me in cool, prickling waves, I pushed myself off the wall and obeyed the voice within.

Keep moving.

The words repeated in my mind on an endless loop, like a mantra. A mission statement.

I forced myself onward and stumbled through the shadows, plastic wrappers crunching under step. The Armed Guard was still searching for Adrianna. They wouldn’t stop until I got her somewhere safe.

I found her on the alley floor, hair swept across her face. I knelt beside her and brushed aside her strands of flaxen waves to reveal closed eyes and parted lips. My breath caught as I stared down at her lifeless expression, and I felt for a pulse until one twitched against my fingertips. Relief flooded my body as I realized the jump had only knocked her out, though the satisfaction was short-lived. Peering down at her, she looked so tiny next to my large frame, but more than just her size had carved my perception of her frailty. Together with her pallid skin and hollow cheeks, it triggered the question that ravaged my mind after every portal we crossed.

How many more could she survive?

As I lifted her from the ground, wondering how I’d drag her unconscious through the streets without notice, her eyes fluttered open and met mine. She smiled. Through the darkness and stench of the alleyway, Adrianna found a way to smile. She always did. Despite the softening sensation in my heart, I didn’t return the expression.

“We can’t rest here. Can you walk?”

She nodded.

The hood of her cloak lay flaccid around her shoulders. I pulled it up, tucking the chin-length waves of her hair inside. Once the shadows of the hood masked her face, I took Adrianna under my arm and led her through the city’s maze of backstreets and alleyways.

The Metastasis

I saw them first but they saw me, too.

They were orange and wore masks with tubes that twisted out of their mouths and noses. I couldn’t tell what they were but I was sure they were aliens, just like the ones my older brother Matt would tell me were hiding in my bedroom closet and under my bed.

“As soon as you fall asleep,” he’d say, “they’ll jump out and get you.

Aliens love little girls!”

I ran to him since he was an expert on these kinds of things. He was on our back porch playing cards with Grandma and Mom, Buster the beagle at his feet, while he joked about how bad they were getting thrashed by a ten-year-old. Not just any ten-year-old, though, a genius ten-year-old.

At least that’s what Matt always told me.

I reached his side just as he was throwing up his arms in a triumphant gesture.

Grandma threw down her cards.

Mom high-fived him. “Another win. I can’t believe it.” She smiled when she saw me. “Where have you been, Steph?”

“Out front.”

She winked. “I think it’s about time for some of Grandma’s birthday cake. What do you say?”

“Sweet!” Matt replied.

I nodded. As soon as Grandma and Mom went inside to light the candles, I pulled on Matt’s arm. “Come here.”

“What?”

“There’s something out front. Come look.”

“Wait. I want some cake first.”

I pulled on his arm again. “Now.”

“Geesh, Steph. You can wait at least five minutes.”

I had to hold back the tears as we sang Happy Birthday. My mouth was dry, my throat stuffed with cotton. What if the aliens came to get me while we were dilly-dallying with birthday songs and celebrations?

Grandma closed her eyes to make a wish; she took a deep breath, and blew out the candles.

“What did you wish for, Grandma?” Matt asked.

“If I tell you, then it won’t come true.”

“Come on. That’s an old wives’ tale.”

She sighed. “Alright. I wished for another happy and cancer-free year. I’m already pushing it, you know. There hasn’t been another person to live to sixty in at least ten years.” Her eyes shifted. “I’m the oldest person in the world.”

They ate cake silently. I didn’t want any. My stomach was all cartwheels and somersaults.

As soon as Matt swallowed his last bite, and with chocolate icing smeared on his lips, I grabbed his arm. “Come on!”

This time he followed me. Our ten acres in rural Ohio were spotted with fruit and maple trees. Mom had a garden where she planted beans, onions, tomatoes, and flowers, but the rest of our yard was a field that Matt had to mow every week because the grass grew quick and thick and tickled our legs when it was high.

“What’s so important?”

I pointed to the tree that an alien had been hiding behind. “It’s there.”

“What is?”

“An alien.”

His neck strained. He squinted. “I don’t see anything.”

“It was right there. It’s probably hiding somewhere else now.” My voice softened to a whisper. “I think it saw me.”

He put an arm around my shoulders. “Don’t worry, Steph, we’ll find it. I won’t let it hurt you.”

There was a large stick in the bushes lining the house. He pulled it out and held it in front of him like a sword. “Aliens hate sticks,” he said.

I shadowed him, my sweaty hands gripping the back of his shirt, as we darted from one tree to another until we were eyeing the alien’s hideout from an arm’s length away. My heart was racing.

We crept closer.

The screams were raw and piercing. Matt took off towards the shouting at the back of the house but my strides were no match for his longer ones. When I got there the orange aliens had invaded the porch. Two of them were holding Mom down while three others were dragging Grandma away. Buster was running in circles, nipping at their heels. Spittle rocketed from his mouth when he barked and lunged at one of them. The alien kicked him away.

Matt raced towards them and jabbed at an alien with his stick before sidestepping and jabbing at another.

Two syringes were pulled out. Both Mom and Grandma were injected.

I hid behind a tree, hot tears spilling from my eyes.

Grandma was taken. Mom lay on the ground, unmoving. They left Matt and I.

The stick didn’t keep the aliens at bay.

Matt found me sometime later. It felt like it’d been hours but he said it’d only been minutes. I was curled in a fetal position, my hands over my ears, my eyes shut tight.

“They’re gone,” he said. “It’s okay now. I have to call the police.”

I hugged Buster who was sitting up, alert. Matt dialed from his cell phone and relayed our address. “An ambulance, too,” he said. “Mom’s not moving.”

He appeared to listen. “No, she’s breathing. But they injected her with something.”

After the call ended, he stood ready, eyes alert, his stick raised high.

I learned two things that day: One, you should always keep your birthday wishes to yourself. And two, aliens might wait and watch in the dark shades of night but they bite during the clear light of day.

Remember New Roanoke

Two roiling suns scorched the desert landscape as the gaunt man stumbled toward the bivouac site. Commodore Tina Morales wiped the sweat off her brow and took another glimpse through her binos. More bone than man, the colonist seemed almost feral. His shredded and grimy olive drab coveralls hung from his skeletal frame like a parachute.

The commodore had planned to send an expedition out to New Roanoke within forty-eight hours. She’d wanted to go sooner, but her command team had needed time to analyze the probes’ data.

Keying the comms device secured around her right ear, she said, “Reaper Six, this is Falcon Six, SITREP. Over.”

“Falcon Six. Reaper Six. Wait one,” Colonel Carlson replied.

She rolled her eyes. Space marines. Any chance they had to assert their authority over a fleet officer, they took it. Still, she was the highest-ranking officer on the expedition. Her only crime was she wasn’t a space marine, but she played along, because she needed them more than they needed her. “Reaper Six. Standing By.”

“Falcon Six. Identified male survivor at five-point-zero klicks and closing. Permission to engage with lethal force?”

Carlson had always been trigger happy, but this request was absurd. She was convinced he was the wrong man for this mission. She needed a ground commander who saw the world in shades of gray, not through a black and white prism.

She keyed her comms device. “Negative. Stand down. Acknowledge.”

“Negative. Contact could be infected. Over.”

An alien pathogen was a logical hypothesis. Over the last fifty years, something had reduced the colony’s population from the two hundred and fifty souls on the original colony ship’s manifest to fewer than ten.

What Morales found even more intriguing were the thousands of heat signatures remote probes had detected beyond the eastern mountains, but remote DNA spectral analysis had determined there was no human genetic material there, so Admiral Chu had limited operations to within fifty klicks of New Roanoke.

The intel was a one-time deal. The United Earth Ship Eldridge would be moving on toward the nearest star in twenty-four hours. After that, the expedition would be on its own and Morales would be in charge.

“Reaper Six. Engage with stun weapons only. Acknowledge.”

A long pause followed. “Acknowledged.”

“Reaper Six. Give me a SITREP in fifteen minutes. Out.”

Two six-wheeled mobiles carrying a space marine platoon streamed past. The marines seemed frisky this morning, almost too frisky. They’d never operated in a one-point-one gee environment before, and she worried their bodies might break before their enthusiasm did.

Morales surveyed the horizon. She still couldn’t get over seeing two suns in Alpha Centauri Prime’s sky, and knowing that somewhere out there laid the answer to the great mystery that had spurred her parents to leave Earth in an interstellar generation ship forty-four years earlier. Three quarters of the crew had been born in space, and this was the first time most of them, including her, had ever set foot on a terrestrial surface.

No More Horizons – Part 1

The soldiers called it Lake Exile. It sparkled below me like a field of glittering emeralds in the sunlight. The green mountain that loomed over us was Warden Peak, and although this planet was known on star charts as Manasseh, the soldiers called it New Alcatraz.

They could call it what they wanted. I called it paradise. Ensign West found me on the veranda gazing down at the verdant lake under the churning pea-green sky. The raptors in the trees around our so-called prison camp may have been startling to look at, but their song was melodious and rhythmically hypnotic. I was caught up in the spell, content to absorb the natural symphony of sight and sound forever.

“Mr. Yancey,” West said.

I tore my eyes away from the lake and turned.

“The admiral would like to speak with you.”

Kate had told me to expect this—a debriefing. I stood and followed Ensign West into the heart of our camp.

As prison camps go, I’d give it five stars. Cobblestone paths, a wide common area surrounded by copper-shelled cabins. Soldiers sat at picnic tables and talked. Some kicked a soccer ball around. Others played Frisbee. I passed a few men and women tossing pennies against a cabin wall.

In one corner of the common area, shunned by everyone, sat one of the Buttheads. Its head hung low, its red-rimmed eyes stared at the ground, its forehead a fleshy, bulbous protrusion that hung over its eyes like a visor. The forehead was what earned our alien hosts their dubious nicknames. More shocking than the forehead, however, was the Butthead’s mouth—a wound-like gash that stretched to the sides of its head at its widest point. Its willowy arms hung listlessly at its sides.

I hesitated as West led me past the bench on which the Butthead sat. I was still unaccustomed to seeing the aliens up close.

The alien stood, startling me backwards a pace. Its eyes closed, it threw its large head back, and in a beautiful vibrato tenor, it began to sing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”

My mouth hung open. West had to pull on my sleeve to get me moving.

“Do they always sing like that?” I asked.

“Only that one. We call him Opera Man.”

“So it’s a male…uh…Butthead?”

West shook his head. “Who cares?”