“They’re intelligent.” Josh Thompson leaned forward, both hands on the console. His legs were trembling. This changed the scope of the mission entirely. In four decades of interstellar travel, humans had only discovered two alien species that were considered potentially intelligent.
Sergeant Aboud raised one of her precisely sculpted eyebrows. “Are you sure? This one doesn’t look too bright to me.” She was watching a security camera feed from the storeroom, where one of the aliens had gotten itself trapped during the attack. It slashed furiously at the wall with its talons, leaving long scratches in the aluminum but making little progress in piercing the material. It could have conceivably scraped open a hole if it concentrated its efforts in one spot, but instead it bounded back and forth from one wall to another in what appeared to be blind panic. Josh could see why the now-deceased crew of the planetary research station had nicknamed the hairless, dog-sized aliens “hoppers.” They hopped like kangaroos. Josh hadn’t been watching a live feed, however. He was playing video of the attack itself. The aliens had used stolen key cards to move through the facility. In the feed from the motor pool camera, two of the creatures clearly observed one of the mechanics use his key card to flee. Then they’d retrieved the other mechanic’s card from her dead body and used it to open the door. The first mechanic hadn’t even made it to the end of the hall. “They’re using tools, and not in a primitive way,” Josh said. “They even blocked open the airlock. Why would they do that if they weren’t trying to make the interior atmosphere hospitable?”
“Maybe they just didn’t want to get trapped in a box.”
“Look at their tactical coordination. They split into teams to herd and isolate individual scientists.”
Aboud shrugged. “Some pack predators on Earth do that.”
“Not like this. The aliens are communicating, coordinating. I’m not sure how. I don’t hear any vocalizations on the video.”
“Maybe ultrasonic or subsonic. I’ll run an analysis. But I still don’t think they’re intelligent, Doc.” Aboud had a habit of calling anyone from the science division “doc.” Most of them did have doctorates, of course, but it still annoyed Josh. He was certain she meant it to be condescending.
Josh returned his attention to the playback just in time to see three of the aliens eviscerate one of the scientists–Doctor Xu, if he remembered the briefing notes correctly. Josh shut his eyes. He was feeling queasy, and it wouldn’t do his rep any good to puke in front of Aboud.
“We’ll know more when we observe them in their natural environment,” Aboud said. “According to the station biologist’s notes, their colony is four klicks southwest of here.”
Of course, the station biologist had also said the hoppers were docile.
Once they’d finished their analysis of the video, Josh followed Aboud down the main hallway where Sylvia Richards, their medical doctor, was bundling one of the dead scientist’s bodies into a black bag with the help of Scott “Perky” Perkins, one of Aboud’s security officers. Purging and restoring the station atmosphere had considerably reduced the stench of rot that greeted them upon arrival, but it was still bad enough here to make Josh’s stomach roil again. Sylvia, however, was whistling something cheerful. It was an odd thing to be doing considering the task at hand, but her quirkiness and constant optimism were a big part of why Josh liked her so much. That and her dimples.
“We’re going to recon the alien colony,” Aboud said.
“Give me a minute to get my gear,” Sylvia replied.
“No, you keep working, Dr. Richards. But prioritize an autopsy of the dead alien, the one the chef managed to kill. I want to know what I’m dealing with. Perky, stay and assist her. And make sure nothing gets into the station before we return.”
“On it, Sarge,” Perky replied.
“Take a close look at the brain structure,” Josh suggested. “I think there’s a chance this is an intelligent species.”
Sylvia’s eyes widened and she drew in a sharp breath, indicating she understood the magnitude of that possibility.
“They’re not intelligent,” Aboud snapped. “Thompson is just having dreams of glory.”
Josh felt heat rising in his neck and cheeks. He turned toward Aboud so Sylvia wouldn’t see him blush. Aboud stepped close and said, “Your job here is to help me understand the aliens’ behavior so what happened to the crew of this station doesn’t happen to us. Don’t get distracted.” She spun away before he could respond.
Josh glanced back at Sylvia. She gave a little shrug accompanied by the crooked smile that made him slightly dizzy. “Um… stay safe,” he said.
“Um, I’m not the one going into the field.” She winked at him. Josh tried to smile, but feared it came off more as a wince. Despite all his training in behavior, he still hadn’t learned how to avoid saying stupid things when talking to pretty women.
“Thompson!” Aboud shouted, halfway down the hall already. “Let’s go. Only four hours until sunset.”
They met up with security officers Lopez and Lopes, or “Z” and “S” as they were called to prevent confusion. Josh didn’t know why they didn’t just go by their first names–Al and Miguel–but it seemed there was nothing soldiers liked better than nicknames.
They went on foot as there was only a single two-man buggy at the station, but the trek was easy. Trappist-1d’s atmospheric pressure, composition, and temperature were similar enough to Earth’s that only oxygen masks were required. A human could even survive several hours without one, though there would be long-term health consequences to that. Gravity was noticeably less than on Earth, which made all their gear feel light. The surface of the planet was about 60% ocean, and of the single, large landmass, 90% was flat plains. Trappist-1d had ceased being geologically active millennia ago.
Almost the entire surface of the plains was covered in a blanket of three-foot-high yellow grass with wheat-like heads and clusters of small, black berries at the base of the stubby leaves that protruded from the stems. It was easy to move through, though the grass left a dusting of yellow particles on their jump suits–pollen, most likely, though Josh had been trained not to assume alien life functioned the same way as life on Earth.
The walk might even have been pleasant if Josh wasn’t so acutely aware that the hoppers were short enough to hide beneath the undulating surface of the grass. After what happened to the station crew, Josh felt a sharp jolt of adrenalin every time the breeze riffled the stalks nearby.
The hoppers were mammalian quadrupeds with skinny frames like greyhounds, but mostly hairless. They had one big talon on each of their front feet, opposable to the other stubby digits. Their heads seemed large in proportion to their body. They came in a variety of shades of tan, black, grey, and yellow. Despite the undeniable danger of their current situation, Josh was excited to observe the aliens in their natural habitat. He relished the look on Aboud’s face if it turned out he was right about their intelligence. And he imagined Sylvia joining him for a celebratory drink in his cabin.
The research station had not flagged any of the species on Trappist-1d as potentially intelligent, but it was the first outpost on the planet and was less than eight months old. The station biologist had mostly focused on doing a survey of the flora and fauna, and, based on the status reports Josh reviewed on the journey here, seemed to be rather obsessed with the unusual lack of species diversity. The hoppers were the largest known fauna on the planet. Most likely anything larger lived in the oceans. The biologist also documented a variety of rodent-like creatures and insects living in the grasslands.
It was certainly not a biome crying out as a likely candidate to produce intelligent life. But the video of the attack on the station showed evidence of two of the three Hernandez Model criteria for intelligence in the hoppers: tool use and language use.
Josh was fairly confident on the issue of tool use. Even if the hoppers hadn’t made the key cards, they quickly understood and implemented them. Josh had no doubt they’d find the aliens using tools in their own dwellings.
The language use was less certain. The analysis of the video showed no indication of audio communication at any frequency. But there were other types of language, and the creatures were coordinating somehow. Josh felt hopeful they’d solve that particular mystery soon.
The remaining criterion was awareness of time. Most likely that would only be possible to prove with an understanding of the hopper’s communication methods. But if all three criteria were ultimately confirmed… Josh would go down in history as the discoverer of one of the first alien intelligences.
Josh spotted a rocky protuberance jutting out of the grassland ahead–the hopper colony. The red rock formation was about twenty meters high, a hundred meters long, and fifty meters wide, smooth and bulbous, riddled with caves and arches. As they got closer, he could see that it sat at the edge of a broad lake.
Aboud pointed toward a much smaller protuberance of the same type of rock about two hundred meters from the bigger formation. It would provide good concealment to study the colony. They snuck up to the smaller outcropping in a low crouch, using the grass for cover. Josh lay flat in a cranny and scanned the alien settlement with his binoculars. He could see the hoppers scrambling all over the rock, going in and out of the caves. There were well over a hundred of them.
Aboud toggled her radio. “Recon team to base. We’ve established an observation post. What can you tell me about these things, Dr. Richards?”
“I hope you’re upwind,” Sylvia’s voice came back through their headsets. “The aliens have gigantic olfactory organs. Takes up a third of their skulls.”
They were, in fact, upwind, but the soldiers still exchanged nervous glances. With a gesture, Aboud ordered Z and S to watch their flanks.
“What’s the quickest way to kill one?” Aboud asked.
“Head shot. Their brains are right behind their eyes. Skulls aren’t unusually thick.”
“How big are their brains?” Josh asked hopefully.
“About 80 grams,” Sylvia replied.
Not very big compared to their body mass. Though ratio of brain to body size had been discounted as a criterion for potential intelligence, it was still not a good sign. Josh increased the magnification on his binoculars. And he saw something that renewed his hope. “Those caves aren’t all natural. They’ve widened and shaped them. There are tool markings on the openings.” Primitive, but solid evidence of intelligence.
It would be more telling if Josh could observe some intelligent behavior directly. A group of hoppers perched at the shore of the lake, spearing a kind of shellfish with their talons. They brought the shellfish up from the shore and cracked the shells against the rocks, but that wouldn’t qualify as tool use. Josh wondered if perhaps there was another type of alien inhabiting the rock lair. Maybe the hoppers were more like trained pets. But no other species had been part of the assault on the station, and how would pets have been trained to use human key cards?
“Dammit, four o’clock,” Z hissed. “Permission to engage?”
They all turned to their right. A rustle in the grass indicated the passage of something. It was close, maybe five meters.
“If you fire, they’ll know we’re here,” Aboud whispered. “Use your knife.”
Z shot a quick look over his shoulder that indicated he clearly didn’t like that idea.
“I got your back,” Aboud said, drawing her own knife.
Aboud moved back through the grass about two meters, staying low and keeping the small rock outcropping between her and the main colony. The hopper must have sensed her movement, because it turned toward her and paused.
Z struck–planted his blade in the back of the creature’s head. The alien went rigid, opened its mouth as if to scream, but then collapsed without a sound.
Josh turned his gaze back to the colony. The behavior of the hoppers on the rocks continued as before for over a minute. He was just beginning to relax when the shellfishers all suddenly dropped their catch and scampered into one of the caves. Most of the other aliens were also heading inside. “Sergeant Aboud…”
“I see.” She was looking through her own binoculars. “They know we’re here. All right, let’s end this. Doc, you stay tight on our six. And if you see anything move, you do not hesitate to shoot it. Understand?”
“You can’t just kill them,” Josh protested. “They’re potentially intelligent.”
“I’m not a behaviorist,” Aboud snapped, “but I know about the Hernandez Model. I see evidence for one criteria at best.”
“Two. They were communicating.”
“They were coordinated. It doesn’t prove language use. Richards said they had large olfactory glands. Maybe they use pheromones, like ants on Earth.”
“It could still qualify as language if the messages are complex.”
Aboud’s stare told him what she thought of that theory. Josh decided to try another tack. “Even if they’re not intelligent, we’ve discovered precious few planets with alien life. Do you really want to go exterminating them before we even understand what they are?”
“I’m not exterminating the species. There are hundreds of colonies like this. On Earth, when a predator gets a taste for human flesh, you put it down.”
“They didn’t eat the station crew. That wasn’t predation.”
“Then why did they attack?”
“I won’t know until I learn how to communicate with them.”
Aboud scowled. “If that’s even possible. These things wiped out every person in that station. I think it’s time they learned a healthy fear of humans.”
Aboud shouldered her rifle and moved forward around the small rock protuberance, heading toward the main colony. Z and S fell into position on each side of her at a professional spread of two meters, slightly back. Josh drew his sidearm. The weight was unfamiliar–he wouldn’t normally carry one, but given the nature of this mission, they were all armed. He had accepted the weapon without much thought. He’d enjoyed his time on the firing range during planetary explorer training, and he scored near the top of his class. But he hadn’t really thought he’d ever have to shoot something.
He fell in as close as he could behind Aboud without getting in her way. They hadn’t seen the hoppers use weapons, so there wasn’t much need to spread out. Josh swiveled his head continuously, looking back first over his right shoulder, then his left. His heart was pounding, breath too quick. He didn’t want to kill the aliens, but he didn’t want to die, either.
They were midway to the colony when the first hoppers attacked. They came in two groups from either side. With the tall grass, they were difficult to see until they were right up on the squad.
As Z and S unloaded on the attackers with their assault rifles, Josh turned to watch their rear. The wind was gentle, but gusty–the grass swayed in swirls, sending up little puffs of the yellow dust, making it difficult to detect anything moving through it.
Which is how the hopper got so close. Josh saw it a moment before it coiled to leap. He felt adrenaline surge through his body and pulled the trigger–BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG.
The alien fell back in a heap, blood the color of brick leaking from three visible holes.
Movement–to his right–Josh fired off two more rounds.
But he couldn’t tell if he hit anything. It might have been the wind.
Apparently, Z and S were having the same problem. “Keep those bursts short,” Aboud ordered over the headset.
“I can’t see the mofos to get good targeting,” Z growled. “We should’ve waited for dark, used infrared.”
“Stop whining,” Aboud snapped. “Stay cool, pick your targets, and conserve your ammo.”
Ammo. Josh’s stomach knotted. How many shots had he fired? He only had one extra magazine.
“Doc, keep up!” Aboud said over the headset.
Josh looked over his shoulder and discovered the soldiers had moved five or six meters forward. He scrambled to close the gap.
The hoppers didn’t attack continuously. They seemed to quickly learn the danger of the human guns. They’d feint, distract, try to get one of the soldiers looking the other way, then attack from behind. That’s how they got S.
Josh saw the trio of hoppers first, approaching S from their rear left flank. Josh emptied the remains of his magazine, killing one of the aliens and tearing a chunk out of the back of another. Gunfire behind him suggested Aboud and Z were engaging a different group. S spun toward the remaining two creatures and quickly terminated them.
But his cry was far from triumphant. Josh looked up from his fumbling attempt to reload and saw S tumble back into the grass, a hopper having bowled into his legs. Two hopper heads emerged from the grass, clamped their jaws onto S, and pulled him away. The grass closed around them and S was gone.
“They’re taking S!” Josh shouted. He looked down at his pistol, took a deep breath to steady himself, and finally slammed his second magazine in place.
When he looked up, Aboud and Z were jogging after the moving disturbance in the grass that indicated where S was being dragged away. They weren’t firing–too great of a risk they might hit S. Josh scrambled to join them. He had no intention of being left behind.
The explosion knocked Josh flat on his back, the wind knocked out of him, all sound gone. As he focused on restoring regular breathing, and the dullness in his ears faded, he realized the aliens must have somehow accidentally detonated one of the demolition charges S was carrying.
Aboud’s face appeared over him, and the next thing Josh knew, he was dragged to his feet. “We gotta move!” she shouted over the ringing in his ears.
As Josh stumbled after her, he understood the urgency. The grass had ignited around where S had gotten blown up. The flames were small in the thin atmosphere but spreading rapidly due to the gentle breeze. Suddenly, vicious aliens weren’t their biggest problem.
Z had apparently been injured because one of his arms was draped over Aboud’s shoulder for support as they staggered toward the big colony rock. Josh wasn’t sure that was a great place to seek shelter, but it seemed to be their only option. He could feel the heat from the growing brushfire on his back.
They made it without any further alien encounters. Josh couldn’t see any hoppers on the rock, now, either. They climbed up about four meters above the brush, and Z lay back into a smooth depression. His left pant leg was torn and stained with blood.
“What happened?” Josh asked.
“Shrapnel,” Aboud replied, digging out a first aid pack. “You keep an eye out for any of those things.” Then, into her radio: “Doc Richards, you got video? I want you to walk me through this.”
“Affirmative,” Sylvia replied.
As Aboud worked under Sylvia’s instructions, Josh looked out at the brush fire. And what he saw startled him. The hoppers–what appeared to be all of them–were digging up a large crescent of grass downwind from the fire.
“They’re creating a firebreak,” Josh murmured in awe.
“What are you saying?” Aboud growled as she slapped a bandage over the hastily sutured wound in Z’s thigh.
“They’re digging up the grass to create a firebreak downwind from the flames. Look.” As they watched, the fire burned up to the crescent of cleared land and stalled. “That takes analysis, planning, coordination. Forget the Hernandez Model. There’s no way non-intelligent creatures could do that.” And he had killed two of them. He felt nauseated.
Sylvia’s voice came over the radio. “I don’t think they’re communicating with pheromones. I didn’t find any scent glands. They can receive, but they don’t broadcast.”
Aboud smacked a new magazine into her assault rifle. “I don’t give a shit about how they communicate. I want them dead. All of them.”
“Wait,” Josh said. “You mentioned ants before… what if something else is controlling them? What if something else is secreting the pheromones? A symbiotic species.”
“That kind of chemical communication requires close proximity,” Sylvia said, “or the messages would become too diffuse. We haven’t seen any other organisms in close proximity to the hoppers.”
Josh looked out at the sea of grass. “Yes, we have.”
“You’re telling me the plants are intelligent now?” Aboud said.
“Not individually. But what if it’s a kind of hive mind? Each stalk of grass could be like a neuron, releasing chemical compounds that are like neurotransmitters in a mammalian brain.”
“Holy shit,” Sylvia said. “And the hoppers can receive the compounds as well, serving as the eyes, ears, and hands for the plant brain.”
“So you’re saying the whole planet is a single organism,” Aboud asked.
Josh shrugged. “Well, the surface of the landmass. In a way.”
“And that’s why the hoppers ignored us once the fire broke out,” Aboud continued. “They have to preserve the brain above all else.”
“That stands to reason. The self-preservation instinct does get strengthened in a normal evolutionary environment.”
“Then I know how we get back to the station. Wait here.” Aboud scrambled up over the rock and out of sight.
She reappeared a few moments later. “Let’s go. Head toward the burned area–better visibility there.”
A tendril of smoke rose from behind the rocks. “What did you do?” Josh asked.
“Created another distraction.”
Josh looked out at the firebreak. The flames were petering out. All of the aliens turned in unison and moved into the grass toward the new fire.
Aboud hoisted Z to his feet. “Time to move out.”
Despite the panic that fueled his mad dash through the grass field, through the smoldering black burn area, and back into the grass, the magnitude of what they had discovered filled Josh’s thoughts. A symbiotic intelligence crossing plant and animal life. Were there other distinct intelligences on the planet, perhaps separated by rivers? Or was this an organism unique in the universe?
In the flat terrain, the station’s curved structure came into view before they were even halfway back. It floated there on the horizon, tantalizing, taunting, as Josh’s chest began to burn with exertion. He spared a moment to appreciate Aboud’s fitness–other than a sheen of perspiration on her forehead, she hardly seemed to be working, and she was half-carrying Z. Z, on the other hand, did not look so good–pale and drenched in sweat.
When finally, finally, Josh burst out of the grass into the cleared space in front of the main airlock portal, he toggled his radio. “Perky, open the door!”
“Wait!” Aboud commanded. “Above you.”
Josh skidded to a stop. He had been so focused on the door that he hadn’t even noticed the hopper perched on the roof above it. The creature leapt–straight at Josh’s head–talons flashing. Josh raised his arms–shut his eyes.
The alien slammed into him, knocking him back into the grass.
He opened his eyes. The hopper was laying on his chest, staring at him with a glassy, dead gaze, leaking blood from three precise shots clustered in its forehead. Feeling a wave of panic, Josh shoved the body off and scrambled to his feet.
He turned to Aboud, her rifle held casually at hip level. “Thank–”
The other hoppers pounced. There were five of them. Three took Aboud down, two took out Z.
Josh stumbled back, up against the door. Fumbled his pistol from its holster.
And fell backwards as the door slid open, a jolt of pain shooting up through his spine as he sat down hard on the steel floor.
Perky stepped forward, assault rifle spitting fire as he picked off the aliens one by one.
Sylvia scrambled past, grabbed Aboud and Z by their collars, one with each hand, and dragged them inside. When she got them past the threshold, Perky stepped back and closed the door.
But Josh did not have to wait for Sylvia to confirm that her efforts had been in vain. Aboud and Z were shredded.
Sylvia sat back against the wall, her bloody hands resting on the airlock floor, palms up, and said the obvious: “They’re gone.”
“What do we do now?” Josh asked. He felt numb. Maybe even going into shock.
“We get off this damned planet,” Perky said. “This mission is FUBAR.”
“How? The shuttle pad is a good half kilometer from the station.”
“I got inspired by the Sarge,” Perky said. “Was working up a distraction. Didn’t get it done in time to help the others, but we can use it now. Follow me.”
Josh and Sylvia followed Perky to the motor pool. He’d rigged up the buggy with a fuel canister on back. “I programmed it to drive in a straight line away from the station. We pierce the canister so it leaves a trail of fuel and ignite it once the buggy’s far enough away.”
“That’s going to create a huge fire,” Josh said.
“That’s the point.”
“The hoppers might not be able to contain it.”
“So what? While they’re trying, we can get to the shuttle.”
“If you burn a significant portion of the grass, it could be like causing brain damage to the organism.”
Perky spun on him, angry. “The organism? You mean the organism that killed Aboud, and S, and Z, and, oh yeah, the entire original crew of this station? The organism that’s trying to kill us?”
“It could be the only one of its kind in the universe!”
“You said that it’s intelligent. That means it chose to be hostile. It started this, not us.”
“We came here, dug up grass, built an outpost in its brain. Maybe it was just defending itself.”
“Well, my rules of engagement authorize me to use lethal force to defend myself, too. I intend to get out of this alive, and to get both of you out alive as well, while I’m at it.”
“Um,” Sylvia said, her voice high and thin. “What about the station? The fire could burn it down.”
“Unlikely,” Perky replied. “That dry grass burns fast, and the station is heat resistant. Now, you two get back behind the door.”
Josh stood where he was, furiously trying to come up with an argument that might convince Perkins not to do this, an argument that would make him see the magnitude of what they’d discovered on Trappist-1d.
And then Sylvia took his arm. “Come on, Josh.” The fight went out of him. He was exhausted. He allowed her to lead him back into the airlock that separated the motor pool from the rest of the station.
They watched through the acrylic window set into the airlock door as Perky used his left hand to toggle the button that opened the exterior door. Perky’s right hand held an assault rifle aimed outward in case any of the aliens were waiting. The exterior door slid up with a low rumble. Outside, only the endless sea of grass was visible, the stalks near the motor pool crushed down from previous excursions.
Perky pulled out his knife and stabbed it into the fuel canister. Thick, pink liquid oozed out around the blade. Perky stepped up to the cockpit and pressed a button. The electric buggy leapt forward. Perky grabbed the handle of the knife as the buggy passed by, pulling the blade free from the canister in a smooth motion. Now the pink liquid gurgled out in a visible trail as the buggy bounced off into the grass.
Perky retrieved a flare and struck it to life. He held it out, watching the buggy, waiting for the vehicle to get a significant distance from the station.
And then a metallic thud reverberated through the motor pool. Perky spun to his left, in the direction of the sound. “No,” Josh murmured. Hadn’t Perky been paying attention? Hadn’t he learned how these things operate?
Sylvia let out a cry as three hoppers pounced on Perky from the right. One went straight for the flare, seizing it in its jaw. The flare burned the creature, eliciting a low wail, but the alien bounded deep into the motor pool before dropping the flare to the concrete floor where it sputtered harmlessly.
Meanwhile, the other two hoppers tore Perky to pieces.
Josh grabbed Sylvia and pulled her back into the station.
“Maybe we can find another way to light it,” she stammered. “The fuel’s still there. If we wait for them to leave, if we’re quick…”
“No,” Josh said. “Aboud, Perky, they were soldiers. The only way they know to solve problems is killing. But this organism is too important to kill. In the greater scheme of things, it’s far more important than the lives of a few explorers. Far more important than us.”
Sylvia looked at him, eyes wide. She was trembling. “I don’t want to die, Josh.”
“Me either. We tried solving the problem Aboud’s way. Now we’re going to try mine.”
It didn’t take him long to gather the few items he needed. He stepped out of the main airlock and set the open canister of water on the ground next to him. Sylvia was pressed close behind. “Are you sure this will work?” she whispered.
“No. But I’m sure it’s our best option.” He struck the flare to life, held it aloft. He couldn’t see any hoppers, but he was pretty sure they were watching.
Then he dropped the flare into the water. It hissed and fizzled out in a hot cloud of steam and smoke.
He held up his pistol. Then he tossed it away to his left.
The grass rustled. Several hoppers peered out from the edge of the grass field six meters away. Josh counted five aliens… no seven. Had Trappist-1d not understood his message? Or was it just taking time to process? The plant brain was undoubtedly much slower than a human brain. Chemicals floating through the air would take several seconds to reach the receptors on the nearest stalk of grass as opposed to the lightning fast speeds with which neurotransmitters traveled the microscopic distance between human neurons.
In perfect unison, the hoppers bounded forward, covering a third of the distance in a leap, yellow dust puffing up around them.
Sylvia screamed. Clutched Josh’s hand, as the hopper’s leapt again–
And the aliens skidded to a stop, just a couple feet away.
They milled about in what appeared to be mild confusion. (Don’t anthropomorphize, Josh reminded himself.) One of them edged forward, sniffing at Josh and Sylvia’s joined hands. Josh held his breath. A breeze blew a haze of yellow dust across the clearing.
“Josh?” Sylvia whispered.
“I think it’s thinking.”
The pause was excruciating.
And then the hoppers turned in unison and bounded back into the grass.
Josh looked at Sylvia. “What happened?” she asked.
He raised their joined hands to eye level. “I guess it decided we were intelligent, too.”
Sylvia let out a shuddering sigh. They walked forward, into the grass, toward the shuttle pad, holding hands.