In the future, it would seem strange to Etta to wake up in the middle of the night and find an interstellar being standing in her backyard.
But at the time, it seemed perfectly natural.
For her eleventh birthday, Mom and Dad had given Etta a telescope- a real telescope, not a toy, and she had been eager to use it during the Perseid meteor shower that August. So that night, Etta pulled her sleeping bag out of the garage and set up at the top of the hill behind the house.
Dad had showed her how to set and change the settings before heading in the house. The gentle slope was a perfect spot- not really high up at all, but enough to give her a vantage point to the horizon above the other houses in their development. It was a warm night- warm even for August- so she stayed up well into the early morning watching the falling stars dance and streak across the night sky.
It must have been one AM when she finally yawned and crawled into her sleeping bag. She would later reason that the exhaustion must have made what she saw happen.
It was maybe and hour or two later when she awoke and saw Him standing on the hill beside her.
Etta didn't know how she knew it was a him, he didn't look like a man. Or an animal, or a monster, or an alien- at least not any of the ones she had seen on TV.
The best description she can come up with is that he seems to be made of light- blueish white light like something in the lab at Harvard might produce. He was about the size of an adult man would be, and a very ill-defined shape. The top of him was small enough that it looked like it might be a head, but he lacked any sort of limbs, or any other appendages.
Etta's quiet for a moment, still a bit dazed from sleep, before feeling a bit awkward, and quietly asking, "Hello?"
He doesn't respond, but watching, it seems like he (she? it? Since she got no response, Etta decided to stick with he for simplicity) changed somehow. Not in size, or in shape, or color, but somehow in...mood? Feeling? These are the best Etta can come up with. Despite this, Ette definitely reasoned that he must be responding to her, that he must understand.
Then he moves, towards the ridge of the hill, and stops and pauses.
After a moment, Etta catches on,
"Oh? You want me to follow you?"
He starts to move again, and Etta abandons her makeshift camp site to follow. The fanciful part of her mind will later claim it was like destiny, the rational part, that she was still a little bit asleep.
When they start to descend the top of the hill, the light starts to grow and envelope her. It's warm, and overwhelming, and the noise- like a soft hum, it pleasant to her ears and somehow seems soft on her skin.
When the light dissipates again, Etta and the light-man are now standing on a street somewhere Etta has never been before.
She shivers, both from the change in temperature and in uncertainty. She's been to Boston proper and New York, with Mom and Dad, but never by herself, and never at night. In her thin shorts and top, on the concrete she feels exposed, vulnerable. But she steels herself, cowardice has never been something she has fallen prey to.
She turns to the light-man,
"Do you know where we are?"
He changes again, and at that moment a man passes the two of them on the sidewalk. A tall, pale man, dressed in an immaculate suit and hat. He bears no mind to either of them, doesn't even seem to see them.
Etta gulps. She's heard the stories, listened to Mom and Dad and Aunt Astrid when they thought she wasn't. Explored every inch of the lab when she was stuck there bored. She's seen the pictures.
Once at the park when she was five, one had given her a flower when she stopped by the bench he was sitting on to say hello. When she'd said something to Dad, he said she should consider it good luck.
Mom and Dad had called them the Observers.
More uncertain this time, she asks again,
"Where are we?"
This time, he starts moving again in response. Etta follows, not really having much choice.
Etta takes this time to look around. Wherever they are doesn't really look like Boston. All of the building are brick and glass. It looks run down- boxes piled up on stoops and piles of papers in alleys. Golden light glows from signs and street lights but rather than warm, it feels sickly. The sky is the same deep inky blue-black it was in Etta's backyard, but here she sees no stars.
Something hits Etta's back, and before she can whirl around and should "Hey!", the person who dropped it over takes her and the light-man, once again taking no interest in either of them.
She turns back, and picks up the object. It's a newspaper.
It didn't really look like one's she had seen before, but it was still recognizably a newspaper. The headline proclaims "Five years until the world's end predicted". It is dated so far in the future that Etta has to read it three times. The future. She hardly believes it.
Skimming the article, it reads about the depletion of the natural resources. There's some prattle about searching for the answers in the past. And more about how the children of the world don't seem to care enough to try.
Etta glances around her. Who could have much hope in a place like this?
In front of them, several dozen feet, another figure stands, apart from the others. He looks at them, seeing them unlike the others. Etta can see it's a figure much like the other Observers, but younger, possibly fifteen or sixteen at most, dressed in more every day clothing. The light man joins him, swirling around his form, and beckons.
Etta continues with the pair. After walking maybe ten more minutes past streets full of buildings that all look the same, she follows them into an abandoned looking warehouse.
The environment inside is different. There are more people, though it's no where near packed. Some look just like the Observers Etta had seen in the past. Others are different- different skin, cupped ears and different noses and eyebrow ridges, some even have peach fuzz for hair. Some of the younger ones even look like teenagers from Etta's time- grungier and wearing unrecognizable fashions, but still so much the same. They are still milling around, without purpose, but there's more conversation, more interaction than any that Etta had seen outside.
The building is much like the street outside- wood and brick and sickly yellow light. But someone has music playing, and there's a stage in the center, though the microphone is vacant.
Her thought's are cut short when she hears a voice she never thought she'd hear again say,
Walter Bishop hadn't changed much. A little more white in the hair under his cap, a few more wrinkles here and there, but even though Etta hadn't seen her grandfather since she was three years old, she would know him anywhere.
She approaches him quietly. Even as a young child, she remember that Grandpa Walter had trouble with his memory. Mom and dad had always told her to go with the strange things he said, that he would come to at some point and that honestly, not everything he sad that sounded unreal was.
"Grandpa?" She says, almost asks, uncertainly.
"Michael, why would you bring a child here? Nevermind, it's good she's here tonight. Stand beside me young lady, there's going to be much to see".
He prattles on about some technical details of the sound, then becomes quiet when someone approaches the stage.
The man is as pale as the Observers. His hair however is a bright, artificial red, and his pale face is marked by a tattoo shaped like a lightning bolt in red and blue. His clothes are like those of the young people in the audience, alternately worn and distressed and bright and eye-catching.
"Ziggy always sings the news. He used to sing rock, but the other kids didn't want to listen. There's not always electricity to play it. The grown ups in this world have completely lost touch, all they want to try to find answers to their problems in the past. It took both Michael and me to stop them from trying to plunder and take us over. But even after that, no change can come from a world fixated on the past. Ziggy wants the younger generations to hear him, to hear him and want for more. He says tonight something will be different."
When Ziggy takes the stage, the light-man approaches. When he begins to sing, the light-man's shape changes again, surrounding the man and infusing him with his light. Etta wonders at first if anyone but her can see this. When he starts to play, her question is answered.
They might not be able to see the light-man, but they can hear and feel him. The music Ziggy plays envelops the audience. Sparkling and enlivened, without the aid of electricity. Ziggy speaks of beings that will come from the stars, who will come and save the earth from what it has become, but the people here cannot truly understand them. Suddenly, Etta seems to grasp exactly what the light-man is.
The crowd is hypnotized. It is as though they are alive for the very first time. Ziggy sings that others will come, and that this period of the world will be finished, who's to know what will come next. Etta starts to quietly cry, wondering if this is the first thing in their lives that the people here have had something to live for.
When the song finishes, the haze over the crowd eases. The light-man retreats from the stage, even though Ziggy resumes singing in a minute.
"It used to be a crowd could get a groove like that all the time, though psychedelics were usually at the root".
Etta laughs. She remembers Grandpa Walter's fondness for drugs too. Mom and Dad always chided him for talking about it in front of her, but she knew better.
She is then shocked when the light-man appears in front of Grandpa Walter, and he speaks directly to him.
"You should take her home, she really doesn't need to see what comes next".
Her shock continues when Walter turns to talk to her.
"You've seen something great tonight. You know, you remind me a bit of my granddaughter Henrietta. Much too old of course."
He puts his hands on her shoulders.
"She always had a mind for the infinite, even as a child. You seem to too".
Etta is overwhelmed, and gives in to the urge to throw her arms around the old man.
With her face pressed into his sweater-clad shoulder, she would swear Walter embraced her as though he knew.
Suddenly, the strange warm light surrounds her again. She manages to croak out. "Goodbye Grandpa, I won't ever forget you", before being enveloped again.
She wakes up outside of her tent again. The sky, rather than the deep blue of the night, has become the brightening, electric blue of morning. Etta reasons it must have been only a few hours.
The light-man stands beside her for a moment, and all she can say to him is "Thank you".
Then he rises, and spreads, ascending back into the fading starlight of morning.
Etta laughs. "Light-man, Starman" she says. And even through her fog, she reaches to the heavens and waves. She wonders where he's going to. Back to the future she saw perhaps. Ziggy did say more of him would come.
Later that morning, she tells her parents she's decided to become an astrophysicist.