My name is Jake.
I won’t tell you my last name or where I live. You might be able to figure it out. According to my best friend Marco, you can find out pretty much anything about anyone on the internet if you know where to look. I used to think Marco was being paranoid, but now—well, let’s just say I believe in a lot of things that I didn’t back then.
Back then I wasn’t anybody special. I worked at a tech company, one of the thousands in the country, high up enough to manage people but not corner-office level. I was happily married to a woman way cooler than I was, and we were thinking about having a kid soon. Trying to come up with the down payment on a condo. You know. Normal thirty-year-old problems.
Until a certain Tuesday, when Marco showed up in my office just before five.
That wasn’t unusual. Marco and I have been best friends since we were in high school. He was actually the one who convinced me to come work in tech, back when I was panicking about what to do with a degree in economics in the middle of a recession. Marco went the computer science route; he spends his days actually making the things that the people I manage design. I’m not sure how he does it, since I seem to remember him napping and playing video games instead of studying for most of college, but he says he knows what he’s doing.
Speaking of which: “Hey, you want to hang out tonight?” Marco asked. “Play some Fortnite?”
Normally, I would have said yes. Cassie had a lot of evening surgeries, and Marco and I usually gamed when that happened. But that night I had plans. “Can’t,” I said. “Rachel’s in town.”
“Rachel as in your hot cousin Rachel?” Marco said.
“Pretty sure you’re not supposed to call her that,” I said.
“Yeah, you know, as it was coming out, it sounded wrong,” Marco said. “So, can I come with you guys?”
I should have said no. If I had said no, everything might have been different.
“Sure, I guess,” I said. “But if you call her hot, she’s going to kick your ass halfway back to Manhattan.”
“Believe me, I am very, very aware of that,” Marco said.
It’s weird, remembering that walk to the restaurant. At that point, the biggest thing I was worried about was how late Cassie might work that night. We’d planned to go through the condo listings our realtor had sent over, make some choices about what to view that weekend. I thought I had the whole future mapped out: Cassie and I would get pregnant within the next six months. By the time the baby was born, we’d have a condo all set up, and we’d get started raising a family. Get a dog, maybe some cats. Save up to move out to the countryside where Cassie could have all the animals she really wanted. That was how I thought my life would go, that night.
I was such a fool.
It wasn’t too far a walk. Our building is in kind of an office-park-y part of the city, but a few blocks away there’s a touristy area with a bunch of restaurants and shops. The restaurant we were meeting at was a trendy new one—you know, the kind where they put the prices on the menu in round numbers and everything is lower case. They’d done up the inside all fancy, and Rachel still made it look shabby, sitting there in her skirt suit and high heels with every shiny blond hair in place. I don’t know that much about fashion or anything, and I haven’t learned that much about it being married to Cassie, but somehow you just looked at Rachel and knew that her outfit cost more than your annual car insurance bill.
Right then she was looking pretty annoyed. I guess I should have warned her that Marco was coming. “Rachel,” Marco said, looking unfazed by the glare. “You don’t call, you don’t write, you don’t like my Instagram posts…”
“Wow, it’s almost like I didn’t want to,” Rachel said, turning her glare on me.
I cringed. Yeah, I should definitely have given her a heads up. “Uh, hi, Rachel,” I said. “Pierce not in town?”
Rachel was in town for our grandfather’s birthday that coming weekend. She’d come in a few days early to meet with some local clients. “He couldn’t get out of work,” she said, crossing her legs.
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever met this guy,” Marco said. “Are we sure he really exists?”
Rachel just gave him a cool glance, as if to say, look at her; why wouldn’t she have an intimidatingly successful hedge-fund fiancé waiting in New York?
“Yeah, okay, good point,” Marco said.
Dinner started out uncomfortable, but it wasn’t actually terrible. There were times in high school when Rachel and Marco really didn’t get along, but they’d been better at it in recent years. Mostly since Marco’s sister had died a couple of years ago. Her death was a huge shock to everyone: she was only thirty-one, just a little older than us, and the car crash was so bad they had to use dental records to identify the body. Rachel had known her pretty well from gymnastics and had come back to town for the funeral. I think she’d been trying to cut Marco some slack since then.
Still, I was pretty ready for dinner to be over when the check came. “I’ll, uh, walk Rachel back to her hotel,” I said as we walked out, hoping Marco would get the hint and leave us alone.
He did not. “It’s not that far, I’ll come with you guys,” he said.
I glared at him. “We’ll probably cut through the construction site,” I said. “You know how you feel about people going through the construction site.”
The construction site was supposed to be more of the touristy shopping area a while back, but whoever owned it had gone bankrupt or something and they’d never finished building it. Now it was just a bunch of half-finished structures in this empty lot. There was a fence around it, but it had fallen down in a bunch of places, and a lot of people cut through it to avoid going around the whole block. Marco never cut through it, because, as he liked to say, “Only an idiot would go through that death trap,” and also, “Do you know how easy it is to get killed by a falling building?”
So he maybe wouldn’t have come with us, except that Rachel decided to jump in. “Ooh, a construction site at night,” she said. “Too scary for you, Marco?”
His chin went up. “Of course not,” he said. “I’d just, you know, I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”
Three guesses how that went over. “I’ll be fine,” she said, striding ahead on her four-inch heels so that the two of us had to scramble to keep up with her.
“Oh great,” I muttered under my breath, and we went toward the construction site.
It wasn’t really that dumb a thing to do. People had been walking through the site for years without anything bad happening to them, and we had flashlight apps on our phones. We even met someone else on the way in—though he was pretty much always there.
“Oh, hi, Tobias,” I said. I didn’t know him well or anything, but he was usually sitting somewhere along my path between work and the coffee shop where I got lunch, and sometimes I’d buy him a sandwich or something. Give him the change in my pockets.
Right now he was sitting against the wall of one of the abandoned buildings, his dog Lucy huddled against his side. I think maybe he lived in those buildings, at least some of the time. He’s a young guy, probably about my age, and always has kind of wide eyes, like maybe they’re seeing things you wouldn’t want to see. Right now those eyes took us in, then darted a second look at Rachel.
“Hi guys,” he said in his soft voice. “You going through?”
“Yeah,” I said. “You having a good night?”
He nodded, large eyes solemn, and we went on past.
We were all kind of quiet as we went through the construction site. I’m not sure what the others were thinking; I was busy feeling vaguely guilty like I always did for not doing more to help Tobias, and then reminding myself that what would I do, anyway? Also the ground was pretty rough, so we were watching our feet. I’m not sure we would even have seen what was happening if Rachel hadn’t tripped and caught herself on a wall and looked up. “What’s that?” she said.
I looked up, too. There was a light in the sky, blue-white like a passing satellite except way bigger. “Probably a plane going in to the airport,” Marco said.
“It’s getting bigger fast,” Rachel pointed out.
Very fast: it looked like it was coming straight toward us, growing from a dot that looked fist-sized to something more like a dinner plate. And it was still growing.
“You think it’s someone’s drone?” I asked.
“Either that, or some pilot got really lost,” Marco joked.
“I think it’s going to land here,” Rachel said.
It did look like that. But that couldn’t be true. We were in a random construction site; planes or helicopters or whatever didn’t land here. And there was something weird about the thing: it had a blue light around it, like it was glowing. “Maybe it’s a something experimental?” I said. “Elon Musk or whatever?”
“Yeah, he’s moved on from flying cars, and now it’s flying saucers,” Marco said.
He was joking. But I didn’t say anything. The thing was getting bigger, and it didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen before.
There was a barking sound, and I looked up to see Tobias and his dog standing a ways behind us, looking up, too. Tobias met my gaze, and I knew he was thinking what Marco was thinking, but not as a joke.
“We should check Twitter,” Marco said. “See if there’s anything about UFO sightings.”
“UFOs aren’t real,” Rachel said firmly.
“There were over seven thousand, six hundred reported UFO sightings in 2018 alone,” Tobias said, and I did a double take at him.
The thing was getting close enough to see. It wasn’t exactly a flying saucer: it was pod-shaped, the length of a city bus but bigger around, with a pointy tail curving up behind it. “Uh, maybe we should leave,” I said. I tasted the sharp metal of adrenaline. “It might land on us.”
“Screw that,” Marco said. He had his phone out and was filming. “This is going to be worth a fortune.”
“It’s got to be fake,” Rachel said. “They’re filming something here. Right?”
The thing came even closer, close enough that it filled the whole sky. It was hovering above us, and the air was suddenly full of static, our hair rising above our heads. “What the fuck,” Marco said, punching at his phone screen.
“Put that away,” I hissed. I’m not sure what I thought was going to happen—but it seemed like a bad idea to be filming this. Like whoever came out of that ship was going to be angry about it.
That was another reason to run. I’m not sure why we didn’t—there was a big part of me yelling that I should get away, that this wasn’t going to end well, that I didn’t want Cassie to be getting a phone call with the worst news possible. But also I couldn’t leave. This was just so…it was so obviously special. The kind of thing I would never see again. I needed to see what would happen.
Or maybe I was just in the same boat as Rachel, and I didn’t believe it was real.
Either way, we didn’t leave. We stayed, mesmerized, as the ship settled to the ground, in the big open area amid the half-constructed shops. The glowing lights at the bottom went out, and our hair fell back against our heads.
Tobias stepped forward. “Maybe you shouldn’t,” I said, but I don’t think he was listening. He had this look on his face, like what was happening was amazing and wonderful.
“We should tell someone,” Rachel said.
“Yeah, like the media,” Marco said. He had his phone out again and was filming.
“Like the police,” Rachel said.
“Should we call the police?” I had my hand on my phone in my pocket.
“I don’t know, do these guys count as immigrants?” Marco asked.
“Hello,” Tobias said to the ship, as if the ship could hear him.
<Hello,> the ship said back.
We all froze.
“You guys all heard that, right?” Marco said. “I’m not crazy. You guys all heard that.”
“I heard that,” I said. I’d heard it, but I hadn’t exactly heard it: it was like a sound in my mind that wasn’t sound at all. Like thoughts were appearing in my head that weren’t my own.
<Don’t be afraid,> the voice said again.
“No chance of that,” Marco muttered.
“They’re trying to talk to us,” Rachel said, striding forward to stand next to Tobias. “We should see what they want. Can you understand us?” she said in the direction of the ship.
<Yes. I am coming out.>
There was a faint whirring sound, and a curving slit appeared in the side of the ship. “If Zoe Saldana comes out of there,” Marco whispered hysterically, “dibs.”
The slit widened to a circle, and a creature stood in the opening. It wasn’t Zoe Saldana. It was like a Greek centaur, only not: I’d never seen any pictures of centaurs who had stalks on top of their heads. Or thick tails that curved up behind them with a vicious-looking blade on the end. Or blue fur.
“Avatar, eat your heart out,” Marco murmured.
He—the voice had sounded like a he—stepped out of the ship. I had a moment to see that his head was even stranger than I’d thought: he had eyes like a human, only larger, and no mouth. And the stalks on the top of his head had eyes on them too. I just had time to see that, and then he staggered and fell.
Tobias ran to catch him. Rachel grabbed his other arm to keep him upright, but he cried out in our heads in agony and they let go. He fell back against the ground, sprawled on his side.
“He’s burned,” Rachel said. She was right: the whole side of his body he wasn’t lying on was charred-looking, raw.
“We’ll call an ambulance,” I said, reaching in my pocket for my phone.
<No,> the creature said in our heads. <The weapon with which I was burned…it has no remedy. It will continue to destroy me on a molecular level. I will die.>
I was surprised by how much I didn’t want that to happen. I should have just been thinking how bizarre this was. But I really didn’t want him to die.
Tobias knelt by him, putting a hand on his unburned shoulder.
“What is it? We might have a cure you don’t know about,” Rachel said.
The alien…I’m not sure how I knew he smiled, when he didn’t have a mouth. It was only his eyes. <I doubt it. If you call your authorities, you will only bring danger to yourselves. I am not the first alien to arrive here.>
“What, there are lots of you around?” Marco asked. He was going for sarcastic, but I could hear that he was shaken up.
<Not like me,> the alien said. <The Yeerks are not like me.>
“How so?” I asked.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by his answer. I’d seen enough sci-fi movies. But you never expect stuff like that to happen in your real life.
<They have come to destroy you,> he said.