Authors: Robison Wells
To the McNeills,
To Richard, who changed my world in one evening's conversation
To Lisa, who welcomed me with open arms
To Evelyn, who is always Evelyn
To Johnboy, who will always be John
ant to hear something freaky?
Go outside and look at the night sky. Assuming you're not in a big city, you should see quite a few starsâin the neighborhood of a few thousand. If you have a good set of binoculars, you can increase that to 200,000. If you're using a telescope in an observatory, you can see more than a billion.
A billion. That's a freakload of stars.
But wait, it gets better.
The Milky Way alone has 400 billion stars. And that's just one galaxy. There are more than 170 billion galaxies. If 170 billion galaxies each have 400 billion stars . . .
A septillion. That's one followed by twenty-four zeros. 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
So, a freakload of stars.
But you know what else is out there?
Dark energy. Dark matter. We call it dark because we can't see it, like, at all. We can't see it, we don't know what it is, we don't know where it came from, and yet it makes up 96 percent of the matter in the universe.
That's right: 96 percent of the stuff of the universe is dark, inexplicable
The astronomer Carl Sagan said once, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
This story isn't about dark energy, except to say there is a ton of stuff in the universe that we don't understand.
Sometimes it lands here.
he aliens were probably as pissed off about landing in the Midwest as I was. I can't imagine they actually intended to set down in Iowa and then skid two hundred fifty miles north to Minnesota. The ship's cockpit was probably full of aliens saying “dammit” a lotâor whatever the alien equivalent isâand then looking out the windows to say, “Seriously, Captain? This is it?”
Not that I have anything against the Midwest. It's just that I'm supposed to live in Florida, in Miami. The Magic City.
in Minneapolis. The Mill City. A city that is as far from any ocean as it's possible to be. (I haven't done the math, but it sounds right, doesn't it?) But I didn't really have a say in the matter. Before the dust had even settled over the crash site, my dad had enrolled me in the Minnetonka School for
the Gifted and Talented so that he wouldn't have to leave me behind while he traveled to Minnesota. Dad was the director of special projects at NASA, at the Kennedy Space Center, and if there was anything that qualified as a special project, this was it. Aliens landing in the heartland. Pretty special.
I swear, I was on the private plane, my bag packed with three shirts, an extra pair of boots, and my laptop, before Dad even told me Minnetonka was a boarding school. He seemed legitimately surprised that I didn't know, as if I had missed some memo.
“It's just us, Dad,” I told him. “Your secretary doesn't keep me in her inner circle.”
“And that's exactly why you need a boarding school, Alice,” he said, opening his laptop despite the fact that we hadn't taken off yet. That's what being in a NASA-owned airplane does to you, especially when the world's in crisis and you're flying toward a UFO crash site. “I'm not going to have time to take care of youâand don't even start with the âyou never have time for me' stuff. You never have time for me either. Just last week I suggested that we go to a movieâthat new one with what's-his-nameâand you said you were too busy.”
busy,” I said. “The cat's in the cradle. âI'm gonna be like you, Dad. You know I'm gonna be like you.'”
“You're breaking my heart. I made sure the school is coed. Would a terrible father do that?”
“So you're not only getting rid of me, you're trying to marry me off? I'm only seventeen.”
“You've got me. Seventeen-year-olds can probably get married in Minnesota,” he said. “I hereby give my consent. Try to find a nice doctor or something.”
“I bet this school is full of aspiring doctors,” I said with a grimace.
“Or politicians. It came highly recommended by some of the big names in Washington.”
“Since when do you know big names in Washington?”
“Aly, have you forgotten I'm in charge of special projects for NASA? Seriously, I don't think you realize how important I am.”
“I'll try to salute more often.”
He leaned over and kissed my head, then turned back to his computer. I pulled out my phone to look up Minnetonka. As the page loaded, I wondered which category I fell into: gifted or talented. I got decent enough grades, but gifted? I'd never been accused of that before. I could play the piano when I was forced to, which wasn't very often. So maybe talented?
Once the website loaded, I was treated to pictures of rolling hills and huge green lawns. Some of the buildings looked brand newâall steel and glassâwhile others were full of gray stone and red brick. Smiling kids stood on the steps of the main building, wearing their uniformsâskirts, white
oxford shirts, green sweaters. The boys wore ties. Five of the six kids in the picture were white, and four of them had blond hair. I considered the lone black boy. Was one-sixth of the school's population really black, or had they nabbed him for the picture to fill the diversity requirement?
I wondered what they'd think about meâmy mom was Navajo, and I am brown-skinned and black-haired. And although I am by no means a rebel, I dyed my hair before we left Miami. As long as I was the new girlâthe new Navajo girlâI might as well be the new Navajo girl with the blue streak in her hair. Dad hated it, of course, but he tolerated it, saying I was just going through a disobedient phase, which is normal during periods of high stress. I told him his mom was going through a phase. TouchÃ©.
I glanced at my dad's computer. His background wallpaper was a picture of the crash site.
“Funny-shaped spaceship,” I said. “It looks like a giant Duracell battery.”
“It all has to do with gravity. Build a cylindrical ship, set it spinning, and you create artificial gravity. People are walking around the inside of the ship, kind of like a big hamster wheel, but not. There's more to it than that, but that's the important part.
Centripetal Force for Dummies
“Gee, thanks, Dad.” I tried to imagine walking on the inside of the ship and eventually coming back to the same
place where I'd started. It seemed so not
. “So inside it's all jumbled up, right?”
“If the ship is designed to be spinning all the time, and now it's not spinning anymore, everything inside must be screwed up, right? Some people are lying on the ceiling, or if there are curved hallways, then everyone is piling up at the bottom.”
“Smart,” he said, though he sounded distracted.
“I'm going to need more clothes,” I told him, as he opened a spreadsheet. “I don't think I have an appropriate number of sweaters for a Minnesota winter.”
He didn't look away from his screen. “You've always been very handy with a credit card. Have you heard they have the Mall of America in Minnesota? It's like America, but in mall form.”
“Did it exterminate all the indigenous malls?”
He gave me a waffling hand, like my joke was half good. “My point is, there's a mall that has a roller coaster in it and an aquarium and probably a bunch of clothing stores and maybe even an Orange Julius. I'm sure you'll find a creative way to spend money.”
I leaned over, pushing my shoulder into his. “And what about Bluebell?”
“She'll be sent to a nice, loving home. On a farm, maybe.”
“Daddy,” I said, pulling out the big guns. “Darling
Daddy. You wouldn't leave me in a big place all alone without Bluebell.”
He sighed. “My assistant has already made the arrangements. Bluebell will get to ride on a nice big truck, and soon you'll have her all to yourself again.”
I sat back in my chair and picked up my Diet Coke. “Thanks, Daddy.”
Bluebell was a BMW 550i Gran Turismo. It was exactly the kind of thing that my mother would have had a stroke about, had she not already had a stroke and died when I was eight. I try not to be callous about her death, but, to be honest, she should have stopped smoking. Her stroke was her fault, so she doesn't get a say in the fast car that my dad bought for me when I got my driver's license.
As for the car, yes, it was too expensive. But there are perks to coming from money. Dad's job, while good, is not the ultimate source of our income. That honor belongs to our annual pilgrimage to the ancestral Goodwin homeland in upstate New York. Dad drinks gin and tonics with Grandma, and I drink virgin margaritas with Grandpa, and after a week, we're set with money for another year. It usually involves me having to perform on the piano (ugh) or sing (double ugh), but by that time we've all had enough to eat and drink that no one cares.
Listen, I'm not endorsing this as a lifestyle. But it's nice work if you can get it.
I've tried at various points to use some of the money to help my mom's momâmy
âout on the Navajo Reservation. But she refuses to take anything from me. She says she likes life just as it is.
“So why do you think the aliens haven't come out to talk yet?” I asked. “They've been on the ground for five days now. Doesn't that seem like a long time for them to just sit inside their ship?” Dad stopped typing just long enough to push his glasses up his nose, but didn't answer.
“For all we know,” I went on, “they could be preparing to leave the ship and spread the alien equivalent of smallpox, or just kill us all outright.”
“It's like the Mall of America all over again,” he said.
“Seriously, Dad,” I said. “Are these good aliens or bad aliens?”
“At this point we don't know if there are aliens on the ship at all,” he answered, leaning over me to look out the window. “It could be unmanned.”
“If Hollywood has taught us anything, it's that there are only two kinds of aliens: invading aliens who want to kill us all, and peaceful aliens who want to enlighten us with their wisdom. Personally, I have a hard time seeing us being receptive to either kind.”
“You don't think we'd welcome a mixture of E.T. and the Dalai Lama, right after he flattened half the state?”
“Two states. I think E.T. Lama ought to wear body armor.”
“There are other kinds of aliens, too,” he said. “Don't you ever watch
? Maybe these are Ferengi, and they're here to make a buck.”
“Maybe they're Klingons, and they want to fight for glory and honor.”
“The Klingons became friends with the Federation, Aly,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “Really, it's like you aren't interested in my job at all.”
“My point,” I said, with all the indignation I could muster, “is that there are a lot of ways that this could go bad. They're estimating eighteen thousand people died because of this thing. I think everyone's ready for a fight.”
“So now you're more worried about angry humans than evil aliens?”
“I'm just saying that this isn't going to go well, no matter what they came here for.”
He patted my leg and turned back to his spreadsheet. “The National Guard is already on-site. I imagine they have their guns pointed in both directions.”
“That's not very comforting.”
A few hours later, the captain announced that we had started our descent. I switched off my iPhone and stared out the window. The ship itself wasn't visible from the plane as we came in to land, but the giant scar it had left across the land certainly was.
I wondered how cold it was going to be when we got out. Miami had been a delightful seventy degrees when we left. I'm not one to crave heat by any means, but I've always heard horror stories about Minnesota winters. I am not built for that kind of freeze. I figured if I couldn't be in Miami, the only kind of winter my body would accept was the kind of winter that we experienced with
on the reservation. The kind where you wake up to an inch of snow that's gone by afternoon. But I knew that was wishful thinking. Minnesota was not New Mexico. It was October now, and even though there were no visible signs of winter, I just knew that I was about to enter an arctic blast chiller.
My dad's job was turning my life upside down, and since a UFO crash was pretty much the biggest news to have happened in the history of history, I had a hunch we were going to be in Minnesota for a very long time. Would I spend the rest of high school here? At a boarding school?
I know that my dad had enrolled me in Minnetonka because he was going to be working twenty-four hours a day, but I wished he'd had enough faith in me to let me take care of myself. I'd have Bluebell, and I'd have credit cards, and Minnesota had to have Chinese delivery. I didn't need to be shipped off to some preppy boarding school.
The plane was nearing the ground, and the speed of the descent seemed to amplify my anger.
“Dad, you do realize that I'm seventeen years old, right? I
should have some sort of say in my life.”
“You're following me to the most amazing jobsite ever, and you're going to a school that produces the best and brightest minds in this country. Did you know that John F. Kennedy went to this school? Margaret Thatcher? Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the front door.”
“You made all of that up.”
“Maybe I did,” he said, and closed his laptop as the plane touched ground. “And maybe I didn't. You'll never know.”
“I'll know as soon as I turn my phone back on.”
“And by then I'll be safely off the plane and running for the car.”
“If I'm coming to this school just to be near you and the crash site, then you'd darn well better take me to see the ship first.”
“Right now it's surrounded by army men with guns that shoot real bullets. So probably not today, but soon. And don't worry. The ship is half a mile tall and three miles long. You'll get a good view of it, no matter where we are.”
When we got inside the completely empty airport, I made Dad stop at the Starbucks, where I got a caramel latte, expecting I'd need it in the face of the freezing temperatures outside. Starbucks was the only business open in the entire airportâeven the people movers were turned off.
We headed for the rental car counters. Dad got a new sedanâa Toyota something or otherâand handed me the
keys. It was against the rulesâyou have to be at least twenty-one to drive a rental carâbut he had a driver waiting to pick him up and take him to the crash site and I had to get to school somehow.
The whole time we were at the airport, I couldn't help being amazed that life was rolling along as much as it was, considering these people had just had a UFO crash in their front yard. The rental car agents still tried to sell us extra insurance; the Starbucks workers still smiled cheerfully. Once I found the car, I told the GPS to take me to the school, and then I changed my mind. Why shouldn't I get to see the ship for myself? So I told the GPS to find Lakeville and headed down Interstate 35. The road was completely blocked leading into town, but Dad was rightâeven from a distance, the ship was impossible to miss.
I had been watching near-constant coverage of the site for the past five days, but even so, seeing it in real life was amazing. It was enormously tall, especially against the background of farmland. They said on the news that it was half a mile highâso it was basically the size of two and a half Empire State Buildings. Seeing it up close, I couldn't help but feel a rush of emotion. On all the news shows, they'd had person after person tell stories about how they'd been in their house and decided to go to the grocery store a mile or two down the roadâthey'd been safe, but the rest of their family had died. And here was the thing that had done the damage, the killing.