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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Alien Day

Rick Wilber

Tor Books




Chloe Cary was adjusting her sweep receiver and waiting for connectivity as she sat with her legs curled beneath her on the comfortable old recliner that occupied a corner of her bedroom. Out the picture window to her right was the Pacific Ocean and above it the dim predawn light of another perfect California day.

Chloe was tired. It had been a long and loving and very private night before Terri left for home at three a.m., going down the back steps to the beach and the short path to the bat-garage, as Chloe called it. The paparazzi hadn’t caught on to that back way out yet.

Then, at five, myBetty had dinged Chloe awake. It was Peter, about to broadcast his live sweepcast from the S’hudonni ship! All over the planet, smarties were dinging and sweepsets were blinking and home AIs were announcing that Peter Holman was aboard the luxury yacht of First Envoy Twoclicks and headed toward the S’hudonni home world! His first sweepcast would be airing in five minutes!

Chloe had been there when Peter snuck away from Earth without anyone knowing except a precious few, and he’d been gone now for eight long days without a word. Chloe had been starting to think she wasn’t going to hear from him again.

Now, suddenly, here it was. Peter! Live from outer space!

The headset went on over the ears like a pair of headphones, and then you slid the lenses down over the eyes and that brought the smell and taste tabs into place automatically. Clip on the finger pads and then say “Connect.” Chloe didn’t wear the unit often, so it took a minute or two, but now, with the unit on, she whispered the magic word, and after a few seconds of flickering gray, she joined him.

She’d already missed the famous introduction where Peter opened with “Hello, Earth. I’m on my way to S’hudon and you’re coming with me.” But just after that, here she was, inside Peter’s head as he walked along the narrow corridors of the S’hudonni ship, following the backside of a waddling S’hudonni.

As he walked, Peter was talking about how he was “sending this live, friends, but I’m told we’re already halfway to Jupiter, traveling at a steady one g, and so there’s about a twenty-minute lag between when I send and when you receive.”

Chloe could smell a strange mix of pine trees and a damp, metallic tang, and she could hear a high, distant whine in the background and a slight susurrus of circulating air. She could taste the coffee Peter must have had right before the sweepcast. They were taking good care of him, then, if he had coffee.

Peter reached up to run his fingers through his hair, and Chloe felt the strands between her fingers. A little more than a week ago she’d come awake in Peter’s bedroom at the beach house in Florida and had done just that same thing herself, running her fingers through his hair, feeling the salt and grains of sand from the nighttime swim they’d taken before going to bed on his last night on Earth. They’d showered off outside after the swim but had been in too much of a hurry to do a very good job of it. The good-bye sex that followed was pretty damn nice, and Peter’s helpmate, myBob, had recorded it all and edited it down for the day it could be sweepcast. That day would be this one, Chloe thought. It would be a great follow-up to whatever he had going on at the moment.

The enjoyment of that last night wasn’t feigned. The guy was a real sweetheart, your basic heart of gold, in fact. There were reasons to like him, for sure, beyond all the fame and attendant fortune.

Peter was talking as he walked the narrow corridor: “I’m following a S’hudonni that I call Sergeant Preston. I named her after that movie from a couple of years ago, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, where that Canadian Mountie rescued her dog from an avalanche with the help of a whole First Nations village. I watched it on the plane from Dublin to JFK and, heck, I wound up really liking it. Great scenery, anyway.

“So why name this S’hudonni after her? Well, when I first got into my room on board this ship, the place was so cold I could see my breath and there was frost on the walls. I’m a Florida boy, you know, so that was insane cold. But a few minutes later this S’hudonni showed up to say she’d been assigned to help me, and when I complained about the cold she whistled and clicked to the room’s AI and things got warmer fast. So that’s her: my own Mountie from S’hudon, rescuing me from a frozen death.”

Peter was a little out of breath. “My quarters on this ship have been made to look like my bedroom back home in Florida. I don’t know why or how that was done, but the bed seems the same, the wood flooring seems the same, the dresser, the mirror, the big window that looks out to the Gulf of Mexico … That’s an image, of course, but maybe it’s live? I can’t tell. Even my bookcases and my collection of old signed first editions are here, most of them from my years in Dublin: Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats, Walter M. Miller, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joe Haldeman, John Banville and Benjamin Black, Maeve Binchy, Kate O’Brien, Roddy Doyle, Molly McCloskey, and a hundred more. They’re all here.

“And these spacious quarters have been added onto the ship, I think, like a kind of blister attached to the hull. Why? How? When? I have no idea.”

He stopped for a second to take a breath. “Man, Sergeant Preston is really moving fast for a S’hudonni, so I’m hustling to keep up. We’re on our way to dinner with Twoclicks, in his quarters. I suspect that will be interesting, so stay tuned.”

He looked around, and so Chloe and hundreds of millions of others were looking, too, as he glanced up the ceiling that was far above his head, seven meters or more, with dim light coming directly from the metal somehow, with a watery kind of soft glow. Then he looked left and right and the corridor was narrow enough to be claustrophobic, dim gray and more dim gray and more of it still, stretching off in front of him, with nothing but that waddling Sergeant Preston ahead of him, hurrying along.

For a few seconds Peter looked down to his feet. The hero on his way to the alien home planet was wearing his regular black running shoes with scuffed toes. Chloe laughed to see that. Something close to a billion or more people were tuned in live to this or would see it later, and she was probably the only one who knew those running shoes were his favorites when he was home. He’d worn them for a run with her on the morning of his last day on Earth, jogging along the narrow pavement of the single road that ran the length of the little barrier island that held his home and a few dozen others.

The island was a narrow two kilometers long, so they’d gotten to the end of it, looked out over the mouth of Tampa Bay, then come back along the hard sand of the beach, down near the waterline, sprinting at the end and turning it into a race. She’d won, but he always had that bad knee as an excuse, so she hadn’t poked too much fun at him for the loss.

He loved those shoes, so the S’hudonni must have gone into his house and picked them up, along with everything else, from bed to books. That didn’t seem possible, given what had happened there, but he certainly hadn’t moved any of it himself. Chloe had been with him the whole morning, from lovemaking to running to a final walkthrough of the old family home as he’d said good-bye. Then they’d all gone out to the beach and watched as he’d stripped, T-shirt and shorts and underwear and flip-flops all casually tossed to the sand before he’d waded out, stark naked, for the long swim to that distant ship, where his future—and Earth’s, too—waited for him.

* * *

Sergeant Preston, the waddling S’hudonni, turned a corner, and there was a stairway, a steep one that led up into the darkness. “Well, that’s interesting,” Peter was saying as he watched Sergeant Preston begin to climb. She was surprisingly nimble, given her body shape, those thin arms grabbing the railing and the short legs bending at the knees to go up.

Peter looked up to see the narrow steps leading to an opening that Sergeant Preston had already reached. Chloe could feel the cold metal of the railing and the moisture on it, and she caught that strange smell of pine as Peter followed. He reached the opening and stepped into another corridor, walked down that for fifty or sixty meters, and then did another climb on more metal steps, talking all the while, going on about how the ship had lifted off so effortlessly that Peter almost missed it.

“There was that flat screen on one side of my quarters,” he was saying, “and I happened to glance at it as I walked by and, wow, we were already a thousand feet up and rising steadily. I didn’t have any of my sweep equipment on yet, so I couldn’t record the liftoff. But I can tell you it was amazing. I could see my own house in the distance, and some people who’d been there to see me off.”

Chloe smiled at how he sidestepped the whole reality of who’d been at the beach house and what had actually happened. Chloe had been there as Peter’s brother, Tom, the murderous bastard, literally burned down the house. Peter must have seen that in the distance, but he didn’t want to share that or what it meant, so she’d keep quiet about it, too.

He was going on: “There was no extra g-force on me, just my normal weight, so I could stand there and watch for nearly an hour as we rose through a cloud deck, and then another, and then kept rising, so that I could see the curvature of the Earth and then the darkness of space and, below, an Earth growing smaller as we moved away.”

Peter kept climbing, following the good sergeant, twice more up stairs and down long corridors, all the while talking. “I’ve been on this ship for, what, a week now?” he said, huffing and puffing a bit as he climbed the second set of steps. “It’s hard to keep track of time here. The light inside the ship never changes, and Sergeant Preston shows up at all sorts of odd times to take care of my needs, from bringing me food—pretty decent Earth food, so I suspect it’s actual food from home, frozen and then heated up here to present it to me—to taking away my dirty clothes and returning them later cleaned and folded. I’ve been trying to self-regulate, staying awake for sixteen hours and sleeping for eight. But you’d be surprised how hard that is to do.”

He reached the top step, turned right to walk through the strangely narrow but tall hatchway, and then looked right and left to see where Sergeant Preston was. He grunted when he saw her, well down the corridor to his left. He took a deep breath, said, “OK, then,” and started walking.

“You can tell I’m out of shape. I’ve been on a few excursions with Sergeant Preston to see various parts of the ship and to meet the crew—and wait until I tell you about the crew!—and that’s about the only exercise I’ve had. I’m going to start doing calisthenics in my room or something. Heck, that might help me get some sleep.”

He was walking along at a good clip now, breathing hard, trying to catch up with Sergeant Preston, who was waiting for him at the next hatch. But he added, in a comment that Chloe knew would keep Earth buzzing for weeks, “So, OK, the crew. I should tell you about them. They’re not S’hudonni! That surprised the hell out of me. They’re cute little creatures, about a meter tall, with a kind of scaly light blue skin, and facial features that look sort of like lizards’. But they walk upright on two legs and have arms and hands with six fingers on each hand and an opposable thumb. Their faces are yellow, and they have yellow dewlaps that flare out to the sides like flower petals from their throat area when they’re excited about something. They almost look like walking and talking daffodils, funny as that sounds. And they’re smart! They’re the ones that run this ship. When I met them, they were busy standing at workstations, a dozen of them or more. There was a lot of chatter going on, quiet hoots mostly, between them, and then indecipherable murmurs and a lot of head nods and flares of those dewlaps.

“One of them, dressed in the same kind of one-piece uniform the others had, but with a lot of stripes and ornaments on it, came over to me to introduce herself as the chief. She—I think it was a female, but who knows—hooted and flared those dewlaps at me, and then when that didn’t work, she spoke Spanish! And then what I think was Mandarin. And then English! We were starting a nice chat about who they were, when some of her crew got excited about something, dewlaps flaring all over the place and the hoots getting louder, and she begged off to solve the problem, saying we’d meet again soon and she’d show me around. Then Sergeant Preston came over and dragged me away.”

Chloe smiled. This was all tantalizing to Earth’s scientists, she was sure. And as if in response to that thought, myBetty dinged with a high-priority message from Abigail Parnell at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Peter’s friend who had now become friends with Chloe, too.

Chloe lifted the lenses and glanced at the Call me! from Abby. “Tell her I’ll call as soon as this is over,” she said to myBetty, and slid the lenses back down into place.

And there she was, inside Peter again, as he slowly made his way up one more steep staircase with those moist railings and then stepped from the top of that, through one more hatch, and emerged into a room where everything had changed.

Paneled walls, wood flooring, recessed lighting at a reasonable height just above them. No dripping moisture. Chloe and the many millions more with sweep receivers could feel the wonder of this as Peter stepped into the room, looked to his left and then his right, took a few steps over to the side, and ran his hand along the paneled walls.

“Red cedar,” his myBob told him, “from Michigan.”

“Very nice,” Peter said. And then he leaned down to touch the flooring. “myBob?”

“Brazilian cherry,” myBob said.

“Twoclicks sure loves his Earthie things,” Peter said, and then he looked up to the ceiling, three meters up maybe, not nearly so high as elsewhere, and shook his head to marvel at the long strips of wood that covered that.

He didn’t have to ask myBob, who said, “Teak.”

Chloe was impressed, but wondered why this spaceship looked like some fancy art gallery in Big Sur.

She got her answer when a door opened at the far side of the room and Sergeant Preston stood there, holding the door open for Peter to walk through, into a long, narrow room that went on for a good fifty meters. Paintings and displays lined both sides, with a few installations hanging from the ceiling. Sergeant Preston shut the door behind her and waddled briskly past Peter to head down the far side of the room to a large double door. Wood, of course, with brass hardware. There she stopped and turned around, arms akimbo, waiting for Peter to get over the awe of the art on display and to come join her.

But Peter was in no hurry. He walked over to stare at the first display, a glass case attached to the paneled wall at eye level, about six inches deep, with a small gold artifact in it. A straight pin with a Celtic cross at the top, encrusted with jewels and intricate swirls and patterns.

“That’s the Tara brooch, everyone,” he said. “Anyone who’s been to Ireland has probably seen it. Is this a reproduction? I guess so. I saw the original in the antiquities museum in Dublin, back when I played for the Rovers. It’s Celtic, I think; an early-Christian-era piece of jewelry.” Peter hesitated for a second, then added, “myBob tells me it’s from the seventh or eighth century, found in the nineteenth century north of Dublin. Very, very famous.

“I wonder…” he said, and he walked along to the next piece, a page of manuscript, large swirls of hand-inked text, in Latin, with a green and red serpent that sat atop the right corner of the page and coiled and swirled its way down the side of the page.

“Yes,” he said. “Incredible. It must be a facsimile.”

Chloe and a billion others could hear myBob say, “The Book of Kells. Eighth century or a little earlier. Very impressive illuminated manuscript.”

“I know,” said Peter, shaking his head and walking over to the wall. A small painting there showed a stylized dog. “Picasso,” Peter whispered to himself and the billion on Earth. “I’ve seen that one, too, in Barcelona. A kind of practice painting he did while studying Velazquez’s Las Meninas. He painted a couple of dozen things from that painting.”

He hesitated, so myBob added, “Picasso did fifty-eight paintings as part of his study of Las Meninas. You saw them in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, in the Catalan Republic.”

There were other items that Chloe recognized as Peter looked at them and myBob filled him in with the details—a life-size clay soldier from China’s Terracotta Army, a small three-thousand-year-old jade giraffe that she knew was from that recent find near Rawalpindi, a mummy from Peru’s Norte Chico site, and more—much more. And this, she thought, was just the material that could be shown off in one corridor.

Peter was looking at the mummy when something farther down caught his eye and he walked right to it, laughing. Ten paces down the corridor, toward the entrance door, a baseball bat hung vertically on the wall, secured by a small brace at the top that held the handle, letting the barrel of the bat hang down. Peter reached out to touch the bat, and Chloe and the millions of others could feel the smooth wood.

“Look at this,” he said. “It’s signed by Ted Williams, a very famous baseball player, for those of you who aren’t fans. I was there when the curator gave that bat to Twoclicks. We’d attended a game—the Cards and the Red Sox at rickety old Fenway—and Twoclicks had enjoyed himself there, drinking beer and eating hot dogs and making jokes. Afterward, the owner of the Red Sox gave him this bat. It’s amazing to see it here again.”

Chloe, comfortable in her Malibu home with the Pacific out the window and funny and sweet Terri still lying on the bed, chuckled at Peter and sports. There he was, millions of kilometers away out in space, on the greatest adventure any human had ever been on, and still he was talking sports. A lunkhead, that’s what he was. A charming lunkhead. Walk right by all the museum pieces from all over the world and then stop to praise the baseball bat.

Copyright © 2021 by Rick Wilber