They initially bond over their mothers, and the way they both feel a little guilty about being glad not to have them around all the time.
Alexis sees a girl around her age, sitting on the steps of the New York Public Library. The girl tucks her hair behind her ear, talking on the phone. “Mum. Mum. Yes, I know. I’m writing the number down now, just let me find a-.” She rustles around in her book bag and, when it becomes apparent she’s not finding a pen, Alexis hesitantly crosses over to her.
The girl flashes a quick bright smile, mouths ‘thanks’ and uses the pen to write a number on the back of her hand. “I should really go now. Yes, mum, I know. I know. I only have myself to blame. I’ll see you at New Year. Love you.” She hangs up and then smiles at Alexis again. “Thanks for that.”
“Still. Thanks. I do have a pen somewhere, I know. I’ve been taking notes all morning.” She nods at the building behind her.
“Studying?” Alexis asks.
“Research. Sort of. Mum’s not keen.”
Alexis smiles. “Well, it is practically the holidays. My mom doesn’t think I should be working on anything more strenuous than getting the rest of my shopping finished.”
She nods emphatically. “My mum means well, she just doesn’t understand that I’d rather be here than on the beach.” She elaborates, “She’s in Spain for the holidays.”
Alexis likes the beach fine, but she agreed to help with the planning for the senior class’s latest charity event, and the library seemed like a good place to go for ideas. They have some interesting exhibitions right now. Plus it’s quiet in there, and home is very definitely not this week. Dad is working on the new book, and apparently one of the characters is a drummer.
Alexis says, “My mom’s in Italy. She doesn’t really get the extracurricular thing either.”
When the two of them start walking towards the library doors, Alexis sees the pen roll away from where the girl was sitting.
Alexis stoops to pick it up. “See, you did have a pen.”
“I told you!” She grins. “Thanks. I should probably get back to work, I suppose. Though with the luck I’ve been having, maybe I’d be better just taking up your mum’s shopping suggestion. I haven’t even bought anything for Dad yet.”
Alexis asks, “What are you researching?”
“Oh, non-carbon-based life-forms, unexplained lights in the sky - boring stuff.” She hurries off into the library.
Alexis stares after her and then – because she is her father’s daughter – she follows the other girl into the reading room. Because she is herself, and this is a library, she keeps her voice to a whisper. “Aliens?”
The girl shrugs. “Maybe. I’m Maria, by the way.”
“And you’re researching aliens.”
“Right now I’m looking up records of local news reports over the past hundred years near this site.
Alexis would maybe, possibly, have let the whole thing go at that point, if the lights hadn’t suddenly glowed bright and dimmed again. The air hummed. Everyone else looked around once and then back to their work. Maria held up a little Dictaphone and looked intently at the screen. “That’s weird.”
Alexis looked over her shoulder. Not really a Dictaphone then. The little wavy lines don’t look much like a voice recording. Alexis has to ask. “What is it?”
“What kind of energy readings?”
“I’m not sure. Want to help me find out?”
Dad is persistent, Alexis will give him that. She’s not sure why she doesn’t just tell him, ‘my new friend believes aliens are real and invading the New York Public Library.’ Of all the people in the world, he’d be the most likely to believe her.
“And you're sure she's not a spy?” he asks.
“What? Her father works for the UN. She's British!”
“He works in IT security. And that doesn't make her a spy. What would she even be spying on? You're not that interesting.” He puts his hand to his heart as though she’s just run him through. “To the British government, Dad,” she amends.
“I never said she was spying on us,” Dad says. "She sounds like a good kid. Have fun.”
Alexis loves her Dad. She dashes out of their front door and half an hour later she’s meeting Maria for breakfast before they go back to the library.
Maria is hanging up her cellphone. “Yeah, I should go, Alexis is here. Say hi to Clyde for me. Yes, I promise I’ll be careful. Love you too.”
“Was that your boyfriend?” Alexis asks.
“Luke? No, he’s my friend. Genius friend, actually, you’d like him. He’s at Oxford now. I was just checking in with him – he’s good with problems.”
“Problems like your energy readings?”
Maria sips her coffee. “I was looking at the newspaper archives. There are reports there going back centuries.”
“Reports of what?”
“Electrical disturbances, weird noises. And an abandoned building fell down.”
“Plus the ghost sightings,” Alexis adds, calling up her research from the day before. “Though that could still be the film connection.”
“But everything’s in fifteen year intervals,” Maria says. “Too regular. It’s weird. There’s something here.”
Alexis considers this. “So. Are aliens always your first thought? When there’s something weird.” The world has been a little stranger recently, but she’s still trying to figure out how Maria got to the point where this normal for her.
Maria says, "I was fourteen, and the woman across the road met a Star Poet in her back garden." She's smiling, far away. "We saw lots of things.” She coughs. “And then Dad moved us both here, and I saw some more."
Alexis pushes her bangs out of the way. "And you think one of them is here. Should I be scared?"
"No. Well. Maybe. Sometimes. But there aren't any reports of injuries or disappearances. Just the lights and the noise. It's probably harmless. Maybe a spaceship on a looping program cloaked somewhere? Or someone's lost. Most of the universe is- most of it's good."
Alexis would like to believe that. Her Dad comes home with these stories and it's hard, sometimes, not to take that in. She balances it up with the good he does down there. And she balances the things Maria isn't telling her about the times it was scary with the fact that sometimes it wasn't. The universe is mostly good.
Alexis says, thinking out loud, "Maybe they're students. Or academics."
"It's always around the library, right?"
Maria jumps out of her seat. "You're amazing. Come on!"
Most people would probably be surprised by how good Alexis is at sneaking into places. Just because she doesn't use this ability very often doesn't mean she can't think her way through it. The two of them look like they know where they're going, carrying a pile of books, and Maria uses her little scanner to open a door that was locked. They're now officially breaking library rules.
Maria smiles at her. "Sorry. I'll try not to get you into trouble."
Alexis shrugs. "I have a long history of not getting into trouble. I've probably got some saved up."
The lights glow again. Maria says, "Wait! Wait."
The air does its humming thing. It sounds expectant, if that makes sense for a noise that still reminds Alexis mostly of the dying note of a tuning fork.
"We just want to talk," Maria says. "You've been here before, haven't you?"
The glow resolves itself into a shape. A translucent person shape, which sort of explains those ghost stories. The sound comes from Alexis's pocket. Her cellphone says, "Hello." It's an odd sound, not quite robotic, but not put together properly.
Alexis takes the phone out carefully and drops it onto the table. "Hi?"
Maria is looking at the ghost. "That's not your real shape."
"No. And we don't have a voice, the way you think of it. They are both borrowed, for your convenience."
"Can you show me what you really look like?"
Another low hum, considering this time. "Not in a way you would make sense of. Human perception is not suited for our form, and the technology to make this possible does not exist yet. You would not resolve the shape."
"Hence the lights," Alexis says.
Maria says, "It's a risk, you know, coming here. The government is-."
"How many of you are there?" Alexis asks. "It's not just you."
"No. We are many. As a flock of your starlings."
"But why are you here?" Maria asks.
The figure glows brighter, so much it hurts to look at them. Alexis shields her eyes.
Maria says, "It's okay, don't worry. We're friends."
She - they? - settle back to normal levels of luminescence.
Alexis asks, "Are you academics? We thought- I thought- because of the library..." It sounds silly now.
But they glow, a little, and bob up and down in the air. An approximation of a nod. "It is a long study, but we are long lived. This is only one point of the research, of course. The project encompasses all kind of planetary development."
"And are we your only... study?"
"That would hardly be representative," she says, her shape sharpening into greater opacity. A frown?
Maria laughs, covering it with her hand. She nods, "No, of course not. But honestly, you’ve been attracting a lot of attention this time around. They've been digging into the electrical disturbances, if nothing else."
"Yes." She dims, gloomily. "We are compromising the study."
Alexis asks, "Wouldn't it be easier to get the information electronically? I'm sure most of the new... no?"
"We like to observe fully," she admits. "But there is so much more now that is upturned by our presence."
"What do you do on your world?" Maria asks. Alexis tries to envisage a planet of their glowing forms, swooping across the surface, communicating in light and low humming.
The alien says, "Largely, it is unimportant. Nothing we build is affected unless it is designed to be so. And we build little. We have little need."
"We build a lot," Maria says.
Alexis nods. "And I don't think we can tell the library and the rest of the block that they need better insulation on their wiring. At least, not because of alien research students."
Maria says, "Plus, alerting the rest of the US government is generally a bad idea. They get a bit weird about it."
"So there really aren't shadowy government forces involved in this?" Alexis asks. "My dad will be so disappointed."
"There are some secret forces?" Maria offers, grinning. "But we try to keep out of sight of the regular government, most of the time." She turns back to the alien before Alexis can ask who, exactly, they are then. Maria says, “I’m sorry, do you have a name? Or names?
She hums a sequence of low notes. Alexis thinks she could copy it on the violin. Maria hums it back: “Ahm-in-ash?”
A trill of amusement. “Near.”
“Okay. Well I’m Maria, and this is Alexis. I can get in touch with UNIT if you need me to do that. We need to figure out a way to keep you hidden.”
“We must finish the study.”
Alexis understands that without having to think about it. She looks at Maria. “There has to be something we can do. They’re not hurting anyone.”
Maria shakes her head. “I’m not worried about them hurting anyone. I’m worried about someone-.” Alexis can imagine the rest.
“So, what do you want to do?”
Maria shrugs. “No idea. You?”
Alexis says, “We’re in a library. Let’s find out.”
They’re not in the right library for detailed scientific research, but there’s enough here to point them in the right direction. Maria makes a call to the mysterious Luke; Alexis thinks about it for a moment before calling her father: “I might be home a little late. Hey, what was the name of that guy you consulted with on that case at the observatory?”
Surrounded by the books, and a computer running in the background, Alexis asks, “Is this what you do, then?”
Maria laughs. “I try to save whoever needs saving. Or help, anyway. It’s not just me.”
"Sound like a good career," Alexis says.
"Maybe. I haven't really decided yet. I should probably get through college first."
Alexis laughs then too. “That sounds familiar. Oh, hey, look at this.”
Maria leans over her shoulder. “That could work. What do you think we-?”
The lights go out. Alexis hears the thump of heavy boots, coming towards them. The two of them dive under the table and Ahm-in-ash fades away into the air.
The door opens and a man’s voice says, “The engineers say it’s around here.”
“And it’s not just the usual? I don’t get why this is different from any other power surge in the city.”
“Above my paygrade, buddy. Let’s take a look down the hall.”
They close the door behind them and the bodiless voice says, “I will make a distraction. Run.”
“What sort of a-?” Alexis asks.
There’s a loud exclamation of surprise from the hallway. Footsteps are running away from them.
Maria takes Alexis’s arm and runs, keeping low to the ground. Her little scanner opens the nearest doorway and they duck through it.
The end up outside, breathless, and both laughing for reasons Alexis doesn’t know.
There’s a whisper, from Maria’s scanner this time rather than the cellphone. “Perhaps you should call your friends?”
Maria nods. “We’ll need to get some kind of story out in the press.”
Alexis asks, “So are you leaving?”
Ahm-in-ash murmurs, “We have what we need for this set. When we return, we will be better prepared. Your people will not notice us again.”
Maria says, “Maybe by the time you come back, you won’t have to hide. Though maybe that would end the experiment.” Her cellphone rings and she stops to answer it. “Sorry.”
Alexis turns to ask, “Would it?”
“Perhaps.” Her hum rises. “We are interested in the development of non-star-faring planets. But the end of the study would not mean we should stay away. Allies are always welcome, and the universe is vast.”
Maria ends her call. “Okay, I’ve got someone working on press distraction.”
Ahm-in-ash pulls the lights back into a shape. “We will go now. Thank you for your help.” She dims and lights brighter again, before vanishing all together.
Alexis looks at the space where she had been, and then at Maria. “Does that normally happen?”
“Sometimes.” Maria stands up. “Oh, I’m starving. Do you want to get something to eat?”
Maria’s dad has finished his job, so he’s taking Maria back to DC the next morning. First though, Alexis is bringing her home for pizza.
Maria is good with parents. She smiles brightly at Alexis’s dad and says, “Would you mind signing something for me? My dad’s a big fan.”
Dad grins. “For someone with a father with such excellent taste, how could I say no?” He goes into his study and comes back with a copy of the new comic. “It’s Alan, right? How did his job go?”
Alexis sighs. If he’s been using his contacts to research her friends again… Well, he probably hasn’t found anything useful, if ‘aliens’ wasn’t his first word when they walked in here.
When Maria goes to get cleaned up, Alexis wraps her dad into a hug.
He hugs her back, asking, “What was that for?” to the top of her head.
“Because the universe is vast.”
He hugs her tighter. “That’s true. But it’s not so bad.”
“No,” she agrees, “it’s not. Plus, I might have found a new career path.”
She detangles herself from him. “Alien investigator.”
Alexis ignores the barrage of questions he sends at her and heads up the stairs to talk to Maria before the pizza arrives. She’ll tell him all about it in the morning (she’s never kept a secret from him long) but not right now. Alexis has never known quite what she wants to do with her life. The past few days have only given her more possibilities – a universe’s worth. Alexis smiles, and goes to find Maria. Today, a universe of possibilities doesn’t sound so bad.