Earthlings

Outback sunshine penetrated the linen blinds and stretched out across Jacob, casting stripes of shadow at his feet. He laced up his boots and filled the pockets of his cargo shorts with his keys and wallet and strapped in the nickel-plated pistol Patel had left for him on the bedside table. Underneath it was this message: For the non-friendlies. Clipped to the note was a Polaroid photo of a sand-colored snake coiling itself around a shovel, held upright by a headless man in mud-dipped boots. The man was arcing away, retracting his vital organs as he strained to steady the shovel. The photo was hazy, as if it had been taken in a room filled with sound, but Jacob could see that it had in fact been taken on Patel’s back deck. He’d attached it to the refrigerator for his wife and daughter to study.

Shortly after arriving in Australia, Jacob purchased several lightweight neck scarves at a provisional chain forty miles away in Coober Pedy. He was wearing one now, and he thought it paired nicely with his trail shorts and heavy boots. He listened for Molly and Victoria, who were somewhere in the cavernous belly of Patel’s house. The house, installed alongside a range of Australian red rock, was a luxury multilevel constructed mostly of glass. It sat atop a relatively lush plateau with a wide view of another ridge and an expanse of desert below. They’d been in Australia for two weeks and already the house seemed to be leeching its usual occupants and absorbing them. He figured the Patels’ half-life at about three weeks.

 

In the kitchen, Molly was washing a mixing bowl. Victoria sat at the table hunched over cereal, an open canister of raw sugar beside her. Jacob pinched her lightly at the scruff of the neck. “You should lay off the sugar, Vic.” His daughter bristled at his touch, her neck taut as wood.

“I certainly hope this girl Patel’s up and married can clean a dish,” Molly said. “He’s storing dirty dishes in the cabinet, I’m convinced. In a place like this, you’d think they could hire help.”

“She’s another scientist, so things aren’t likely to change. And besides, who’s there to hire? The nearest town is forty miles away.”

Apart from the rancher who lived on the other side of the ridge, whose house was arranged at such an angle that neither neighbor had a view of the other, Patel lived alone on an island. An island in a bay of rising red rocks, surrounded by a dozen other immensities, looped inside a horizon of fire.

“Iris is a graduate student, or am I mistaken?” Molly wiggled something at him. It looked like sea anemone attached to a plastic tube filled with red liquid. “What’s that on your neck?”

He’d tied and retied it in an attempt to mimic the hulking gray mannequin at the provisional store. “It’s a scarf. And no, you’re not mistaken. Iris was Pagbir’s research assistant.” He took down one of the handle-less painted cylinders they’d been using for coffee. Initially they’d been enchanted by the glass walls, the stone-lined sinks and the aboriginal earthenware, but by this point it all seemed far less moony. “How do you plan to pass the day? Out by the pool? You should drink that sangria.”

“Cooking,” Molly said. “Baking, wrapping, you know, in the name of Jesus. It seems pointless out here in this heat all by ourselves. But who can forgo the ritual?” The next day was Christmas Eve. Molly and Victoria had decorated the bronzed statue of Galileo in the courtyard with strands of large, colorful bulbs and placed a Santa hat on his head.

“Wait until you see what we found this morning.” Molly opened a drawer filled with slotted spoons and spatulas and retrieved a plum-colored tangle of fabric. “Vic found that woman’s G-string underwear in the goddamn utensil drawer,” she said. She shook it and it unfurled. “I swear I didn’t know right away what the hell it was. It’s really just three pieces of string. I’m sick to death. I’ll hardly be able to eat in here now.”

“So she put it back in the drawer. How nasty is she?” his daughter said, allowing bits of cereal to tumble from her mouth and drop back into the bowl.

“What if they keep it in there for a reason? God only knows.” Molly laughed and a constellation of freckles flushed red below the hollow of her neck.

He allowed himself to imagine for a moment Iris Patel standing in the kitchen naked but for these plum vectors pointing to her inevitable triangle, her long black braid bisecting her shoulder blades, maybe holding a carton of orange juice, shaking it absentmindedly.

The day they’d arrived, Patel had picked them up from the airport alone. At the house they’d found Iris lying out by the long rectangular wading pool. She hadn’t bothered to get up. She waved to them sleepily from the other side of the glass wall. Jacob noticed where her yellow bikini narrowed to a tiny, thrilling bulge and how, above that, prominent hipbones delicately strained the fabric. Molly had taken in a gulp of air, not a gasp but enough for Jacob to notice, before waving back stiffly. Victoria fidgeted while trying to look away. And for the next three days leading up to the Patels’ departure, Iris remained the unacknowledged locus of everyone’s attention.

Victoria placed her bowl on the counter and tried to skulk out.

“Haven’t you forgotten something, Vic?” his wife called after her. She trudged back and took the sponge-wand from her mother and began scrubbing her mud-colored bowl with halting, jerky motions.

“Want me to feed the birds before I leave?” he asked.

The emus were beginning to crowd the patio outside the kitchen, ready for breakfast. They were absurd in their very proximity to Patel’s glass house.

“No, we’ve got it,” Molly said. She rapped on the glass. “Fuck off, giant chickens!” The persistent troop noodle-necked around a bit but stayed put.

“Easy, Mom.” The skin around his daughter’s eyes was thin and the blue veins floated pale and lively just below the surface. “Emus can bring the heat. They belong to an ancient race of giants. Ferocious, stupid, groaning giants.” She had developed a fixation on the birds that Jacob found disconcerting. She lifted her arms and made claws with her hands. Soapy water streamed toward her elbows, soaking the sleeves of her nightshirt. “And their ancestors are still out there in the desert. Flesh-eating giants!” She wagged her head at him. “That’s who’s been taking the emus at night.” In the three weeks since they arrived, two birds had disappeared. Jacob called Patel both times, leaving a message. Patel returned a single line by email: They look like predators, but they’re prey.

His daughter cackled in uneven bursts. Her high, sweet-prickle laugh. She took off around the kitchen in a high-kneed lope. “The giants walk the desert at night in search of food. Giant crushes skulls!” she said in a fee-fi-fo voice. “Giant noshes brains!” She edged close to him and he could smell the milk and cereal on her breath. Frankly, Jacob was a little afraid of his daughter. Fear was the only word for it. And on top of that, at times he felt toward her a latent, gentle repulsion of which he was deeply ashamed. “Australians taste like Vegemite,” Victoria whispered, inches from his face. “And giants smell the blood of Americans.”

“Oh, that’s just what you need in a glass house,” Molly said. “Enemies.”

“Well, they’ll surely want none of my old blood, so it must be you they’re after.” In an attempt to match her levity, Jacob moved in to tickle Victoria in the ribs but she stiffened to glare at him—hazel irises sliding up, head tilting down, face draining almost instantly of color. “But I suspect the emus are actually falling prey to the warrigal,” he said, stepping away. “Otherwise known as the common outback dingo.”

Victoria remained stony-faced. “The aborigines killed emus to cleanse their spirits.”

“That’s interesting,” Molly said, always the equalizer.

“Who told you that? It is my understanding that the aborigines revere these birds.”

“It’s in a book I found.” His daughter read everything she could get her hands on. She read quickly, turning pages loudly, attacking books. “And they worshipped an emu in the sky.”

“Actually, Patel says the thinking these days is that it was a collection of space dust. Debris that came around the same time every year, oddly, corresponding with the emu egg harvest.”

“Oddly, you don’t know everything.” With that, she turned her back on them and left.

Jacob was relieved she was gone. She made him feel helpless. No matter how hard he tried, it seemed he could only love his daughter in repose. “Let’s drive into town for dinner when I get home.”

“Okay. Not too late,” his wife said. “I hate this desert at night.”

 

“By now you must know it’s nothing you can fix.” Molly had said this on the plane over to Australia. “She’s not choosing to be this way. It’s no one’s fault. It just is.”

Molly was drunk. It was her way of dealing with the unpredictable atmosphere over the South Pacific.

At forty, his wife was terminally exhausted. Her once-smooth forehead had blossomed a rippling edifice of tension. The beautiful white skin along her jaw line had come loose. “It’s in her DNA, Jacob. This is the way she came to us. I’m sure of it. What if she needs Dr. Pollock while we’re there? What then?” She was squeezing a lime into her gin and tonic. She kept pulling them out, cut limes, a seemingly endless supply, from the shadows of her giant purse.

“It’s Australia, Molls. It’s not deepest, darkest Peru.” Victoria was asleep across the aisle, two rows back. Thin bangles ringed her freckled wrists and two sculpted earbuds dangled from her neck. Her narrow, surprised mouth hung open, a streak of red hair slung across it.

Early on, he’d hoped for something tangible, like a stroke or a blood clot. This belief had compelled him to take their daughter to over forty specialists in less than three years. But the best they’d received was a fringe-ish diagnosis of Acute Juvenile Bipolar Schizoaffective Disorder, a condition not yet recognized by the American Pediatric Association’s diagnostic manual, a document that had proven itself useless time and again.

Six years ago, when their daughter was ten, Molly had gone to wake her only to find her bed empty.

After an hour of frantic searching, Jacob discovered Victoria hunkered beneath a sago palm behind their next-door neighbor’s house. She had on pink, tiger-striped pajamas. Palm fronds had brought up welts on her arms. Her eyes were open but she wasn’t awake. She wasn’t asleep, either.

When he found her, his first reaction was anger. An irrational yet, he assured himself, nearly universal response. It seized him for a moment, long enough for him to yank his daughter by the arm and bring her to standing with some force. Then Jacob was released into a shimmering, God-praising euphoria. He regarded this as his life’s one and only spiritual experience: finding the daughter he’d already mentally surrendered to a dozen different hellscapes, under a tree, safe and whole. He sensed a distant kernel of knowledge within the ecstasy of this moment. There was something essential he was overlooking, some data lay unconsidered, and this knowledge, he felt, belonged to those very first moments.

And in his initial reverie, Jacob didn’t notice right away the welts on Victoria’s arms, or the fact that she’d soiled her pajamas, or that his right hand was clamped down fiercely on her slender bicep. Shadows hung here and there on her pale little face and she was rolling her eyes upward, flashing him queasy crescents of bloodshot white.

“Right here,” he kept saying. “Look here . . . I’m here.”

Molly had been out canvassing the neighborhood. By the time she returned, breathless and wild-eyed, Victoria had recovered herself. She sat quietly, letting them rub Calamine lotion on her.

Jacob tried to explain to Molly what had transpired by the sago palm. “The lights of her eyes dropped away, Molls, as if her soul was retracting. Like black ice on the highway, flat glass. Like a trapped animal.” Imprecise, of course. All of it. None of it was right.

And so in the absence of a better theory they would feebly point to this, this business with the flat eyes, as the genesis of Victoria’s erratic behavior, the cutting and catatonia still to come. And when eventually told, by what seemed to him sheer process of elimination, that Victoria had bipolar disorder, Molly settled into the news with a casualness that always gnawed at him.

He rattled along in Patel’s open jeep, crossing the four miles between the house and the station. All elevation was behind him now, and in front only horizon. The aborigines called this place The Dead Flats. The spinifex grew up to five feet in places, and Jacob didn’t want to think about what manner of creatures lurked underneath. A breeze blew in dusty belches, and he had to reposition his scarf several times to cover his mouth and nose. He adjusted Patel’s driving goggles and wished he’d had the courage for the oilskin bush hat back in Coober Pedy.

Jacob’s oldest friend and colleague, Dr. Pagbir Patel, radio astronomer and astrophysicist, was in the Seychelles sequestering Iris, his latest bride. He’d offered Jacob the use of his empty house and, even better, his lab. Patel headed up the only SETI program in the southern hemisphere, and unlike Jacob’s university program back in Utah, the Australians gave Patel legitimizing support.

And with that support Patel was able to develop the most accurate, powerful, interstellar messaging system to date. He called this invention The Patel Laser. Jacob thought the name significantly diminished his friend’s achievement. Had it been his to name, Jacob would’ve chosen the one name that embodied the very human desire to seek the news instead of to sit passively and wait for it: Telemachus. Meanwhile, Jacob’s own lab was discreetly crumbling away in the Escalante Desert. His team sent messages into space comprised of frequency-modulated radio waves, a method largely unchanged since the Johnson administration. They targeted certain star systems and aimed a cheap binary message in their general direction, a message meant to approximate—should it ever be reconstructed by actual extraterrestrials—a crude human form. Essentially, they were sending a pixelated men’s room door plaque. In the years they were lucky enough to land one of the few remaining government grants, they’d also send along a sequence of generic human nucleotides. Occasionally, they’d throw in a slightly inaccurate double helix and a planetary diagram of the Milky Way.

While Jacob and Molly lived off the salary afforded him by his position as associate professor of Astrophysics, SETI had made Patel rich. His two books became bestsellers. His house was featured in Architectural Digest. It was this last fact that convinced Molly to make the trip. “And maybe,” she’d said, “it’ll be good for Victoria.”

At the entrance to the SETI station, a young soldier in a glass booth waved him on. This was, after all, a government facility, a fact that still amazed him. The Australians, instead of using large, unwieldy dishes for listening in outer space, used fields of small ones. This was Patel’s brilliant idea. They could enhance the sensitivity of the array by increasing the size of the dish field. Patel could monitor three million stars at once. Sure, it was like sampling the entirety of Earth’s oceans one thimbleful at a time, but it was more than anyone else could do.

Jacob drove up to the building on a crackling dirt road that cut two wide expanses of limestone. The terrain had formed from white, concentrically layered ooids and in the morning light, the tiny spheres shimmered and flashed. On either side of him, the dishes hummed with a satisfying exuberance, their shallow white bowls pointed at the sky. They were somehow imbued with Patel’s own perspicacity. “What have you heard, my friends?” Jacob called out to the field of dishes. “What do you know?”

All his life, his thoughts had inevitably meandered toward some paradox of the ever-expanding cosmos. And he considered the pristine skies of the southern hemisphere as somehow belonging to a better class of universe. Outer space as seen from the bottom of Earth wasn’t sullied by heresies or encumbered by centuries of bumbling scientific speculation. Here was an unaccustomed celestial spread under which a man like Jacob could really dream.

He parked the jeep next to a dusty red Prius. The sticker in the back window depicted the customary inverted egg-shaped alien head and the caption: Be Alert: The Universe Needs More Lerts. Once settled in his friend’s office, he looked over the data from the previous day and examined the dish reports Patel had painstakingly explained to him before leaving for his honeymoon. He’d allowed Jacob to program the coordinates for the dishes himself, in the direction of the constellation Pavo, the peacock. As usual, the cosmos had crackled with sound, which computers waded through at lightning speed, looking for pattern, for something purposeful. Jacob fantasized, of course, that the big moment might happen on his watch. It appeared once again that today wasn’t going to be his day.

He checked the progress of the Patel Laser. Most transmissions took anywhere from two to ten days to complete, depending on complexity. The laser was able to deliver a message to a focused location with extreme accuracy, tracking a single target while accommodating for Earth’s rotation. It tightened a signal into focused wavelengths which, when cast into deep space, spread only a few hundred kilometers. The miniature waves passed quickly through each point and could carry complex messages mostly intact. The result was an elegant transmission, a missive in keeping with the abilities of modern Earth. At the moment, they were two days away from completing the delivery of Caravaggio’s John the Baptist to a star in the right corner of Eridanus.

Jacob initialed the reports and walked out to the hallway. Although SETI was the station’s high-profile pastime, its day job was research. Several prominent researchers with grants in astrophysics, optics, and acoustics had labs at the station. Coming toward him was Christopher Feng, Patel’s second in charge, and Roger Click, the Optics’ project manager. It was with these two men that Jacob was united in secrecy. It was a secret they’d sworn to uphold two weeks earlier, pledging their drunken allegiance to Pagbir Patel on the afternoon of his wedding. The secret was one that had cost the Australian government over a hundred thousand dollars, and if it were to get out, would surely cost Pagbir Patel his lab. Patel had confessed that, earlier that morning, as a gift to his young bride, he’d reprogrammed The Patel Laser and sent Iris’s DNA sequence to a remote star in the recesses of Hydra’s head, along with a message: Behold! The ideal earthling.

“No response yet from our brothers in Hydra?” Feng asked Jacob, nudging him too hard in the ribs. The physicality of the Australians still caught Jacob off guard.

Click had a meaty laugh, and the buoyant and immense man seemed to find everything about Jacob funny. “Word’s coming any day now on the extraterrestrial boner inspired by the latest Mrs. Patel,” he said. “I just know it.” He rubbed his giant hands together. “That little tart would be just the thing to finally wake ’em up.”

“Oh, E.T. called,” Jacob said, trying his best to match their congeniality, “they’re on their way to the Seychelles right now to zap her off her beach chair.”

Feng smiled and moved in closer, making uncomfortably thorough eye contact with Jacob. Click gave them both a smart smack on the back.

A year ago, Iris Patel—twenty-six, Chinese-Australian—was a research assistant working for Click in Optics. She had a round, thoughtful face and the tanned, muscular confidence of an Australian. Her black hair usually hung in one thick, braided rope, which she occasionally coiled at the nape of her neck and secured with ornate wooden sticks. She’d come to the lab in August and became a regular later that year at Patel’s pool parties. By March, he’d secured a full-time research grant for her and moved her into his glass house. In October, Patel asked Iris to marry him.

Jacob wasn’t sure how he felt about Patel’s wedding gift. After the ceremony, while the four men were sipping whiskey on Patel’s sky deck and smoking cigars, Patel told them he and Iris had made love on the sofa in the station’s break room, right after he’d shown her planet Earth’s latest gesture of cosmic goodwill. Patel’s amused and handsome face was animated with excitement as he spoke. A flaming expanse of sunset and desert was splayed out before them, and maybe it was the whiskey, but Jacob had even teared up a bit at this bold love-gestalt.

But now he wasn’t so sure. He wasn’t concerned about the dishonesty, per se. The man did, after all, invent the laser. No, it was just that the transmission was far too illicit, too private. More private, Jacob thought, than an image of Iris’s nude body would’ve been. It was an unpleasant contradiction. Jacob imagined, in a Rod Serling twist, a spaceship touching down on Earth a hundred years from now and unloading an army of Irises made up especially for the occasion.

It was later that afternoon, while Jacob was out inspecting the dish field, amid the kettledrum droning of an active universe, that his cell phone rang. It was Patel’s landline. Much to Jacob’s amusement, there was no satellite reception at Patel’s house.

“We couldn’t get a turkey,” Victoria said, her voice devoid of any intonation. “That’s okay, honey. Right? We had turkey at Thanksgiving.”

“I know. Mom’s making ham.”

There was a long whistle, interference from the dishes.

“Sorry, sweetie. I’m out in the field.” He squinted into the sun, which seemed to be everywhere, reflecting off the ooids and the metal antennae.

“Is it safe?”

“Of course.”

“For Iris? I mean, is it safe for her? Mom told me what Patel did to her. Sending her into space.”

He immediately felt the fire from an old strain of poison that he carried in his blood, the hot anger he reserved for Molly and her boozy lack of boundaries. “Honey, that was just a gesture. Like a love poem, but from a scientist. That’s all. You shouldn’t mention that to anyone else, okay?”

“I won’t. But I’m afraid.”

“Victoria, if you think about it, this is Patel’s way of . . .” But she was already gone.

Later that evening, Jacob arrived to find the front door open. Several emus were lingering by the doorway, clicking away on their ridiculous dinosaur feet. One had braved the threshold and stood defiant on the foyer’s black marble. On the other side of the glass, Jacob found the emus somewhat charming. But inside the house, bird became monster. The thing was shaking its horrent feathers, backing away from Jacob with a satisfied strut. It took a sudden step toward him, and Jacob nearly punched it in its Donald Duck snout, but instead he maneuvered around it and flipped on the light switch.

The glass house filled with light, and the bird ran three long-legged steps out the front door and into the courtyard where Galileo sat alert on his stone perch, gilded with Christmas spirit, peering into the night through his long, thin eyepiece. A shriek erupted from the kitchen behind him. Jacob turned to see the largest of the emus, a generously feathered bird Patel called Floop, clicking toward him. It was an abominable, shaggy troll on stilts, fitted with oversized armored claws.

The bird looked straight at Jacob and took another wobbly step in his direction. It was struggling for traction on Patel’s polished floor. He knew they could reach a top speed of thirty miles an hour, and despite his sloppy start, Floop seemed intent on using the long hallway between him and Jacob to work himself up to that.

Confusion anesthetized Jacob. He flattened himself against the wall. But before it could reach him, the bird lost control and went down on the marble floor, its legs splayed on either side. Floop began squawking and warbling. His calls were stirring up a cacophony from the birds in the courtyard. Their booming grunts quickly gathered into a great symphony of discord. From within their chaotic calls, Jacob thought he could discern a pattern, a rhythm that hinted at language.

He edged down the hallway, sliding against the wall. His plan was to lift Floop up before he noticed a small trickling of something oozing from the animal’s mouth. A reddish-black foam had gathered on its lips.

“Molly!” Jacob yelled, suddenly aware of her absence. “The birds are in the house, for Christ’s sake!” In response, Floop opened his beak and Jacob could see the inflatable sac in his neck gather air. The bird let loose a wild, guttural whoop that succeeded in blasting Jacob back a few steps.

Floop hoisted himself up, his jointed legs reassembling and straightening with impossible agility. Once upright, he flapped his tiny, useless wings.

Jacob pulled Patel’s pistol from the holster in his cargo shorts and shot Floop three times, hitting him in the head, chest, and wing. All luck, no aim. Jacob had kept his eyes closed.

The massive animal managed an elegant death. He looked at Jacob with inquisitive, intelligent confusion before collapsing, beak first, his heavy body first thudding then skidding a few feet across the marble before settling inches from Jacob. Two bloody feathers took an independent trajectory and landed on his boot. There wasn’t much blood, and what there was created a mollusk-like spatter pattern on the wall.

It took him a moment to register that the kitchen phone had been ringing. His chest felt heavy, fear-sodden. He let the metal wall unit trill several more times before stepping over Floop and walking down the hall to pick up the receiver in the kitchen.

“It’s Mac Keith,” the voice said. “We live on the other side of the ridge. Your wife made her way here on foot. She wants to speak with you, mate. She’s pretty shaken up.”

Mac Keith had hardly finished saying this before Molly’s voice was in Jacob’s ear. “Did you find Floop?” She was sobbing.

“You could say that. Molly, where’s Victoria?”

“What do you mean? She’s there, Jacob. Isn’t she? I think she tried to poison that bird. She’s not making any sense—”

“You left her here alone? What the hell, Molly?”

“I ran for help. The birds . . . Jacob, I was so afraid. I think she’s off her meds—”

Molly was starting to say something else when Victoria’s voice came roaring through the receiver. “Fuck you. You fucking man. Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare. I know what you’re doing, what you did. You shot my bird! I saw you. ” Jacob looked through the glass wall, beyond the courtyard, and into the living room on the far side of the pool.

Victoria was standing on the white carpet, holding the other extension, staring at him. She had on a pink sweater and Iris’s G-string underwear. His daughter was wearing Iris Patel’s underwear. She began hopping lightly on her toes, little jittery elevations, lifting her heels. One of Iris’s painted sticks was protruding out of the top of her red ponytail. “I know what you and that Indian devil are trying to do, what all those dishes are really for. I’m going to tell. I’ll blow it all open.”

Jacob felt sure he was going to be sick. He kept his eyes on his daughter’s face, her mouth. He could see her mouth moving, but still he found it difficult to believe the words were actually coming from her. “The birds are on my side, you fuckhead. You can’t send me into space. You can’t do shit to me! I’m entitled to better. Do you hear me? Don’t act dumb. Do you hear me? Don’t act dumb.” She flipped him the finger and Jacob dropped his head and closed his eyes again. “Do you hear me, Jacob? You melt girls down and feed them to the space men. You fuck.”

“Why, Molly? You’re supposed to be monitoring her! You’re her mother, for Christ’s sake.” When he opened his eyes again, he was surprised to see the gun still in his hand. He looked back across the courtyard at Victoria, who was smiling now, still hopping.

It was the last day of December, and Jacob was on the night shift. Two more days and they would be on a plane back home to Utah. Patel, still in the Seychelles, emailed photos of him and Iris on a diving boat.

Victoria was in the glass house with Molly, sleeping all day. The psychiatrist in Coober Pedy had spoken to Dr. Pollock back in Utah, and everyone agreed that her medicine would need adjusting and that Pollock should be the one to do it. For now, they’d keep her oblivious in a fog of Ativan.

Jacob pulled up the diagnostics on the Patel Laser. He sighed into the monitor as it reported back the progress of the latest transmission, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

The email came in at 3:37 AM. It was delivered to Patel’s lab account, which was merged with one they created for Jacob. The username was thehalcyontiger@ yahoo.com. The subject line: The Ideal Earthling. It read:

Dr. Patel,
Thank you for sending “The Ideal Earthling.” This Earthling is perhaps exquisite but not ideal. There are, as is the case with most Earthlings, unfortunate trouble spots. Of course, we can heal her. And all like her. But then again, so can you.

However, it will be at least 1.5 centuries before you can collectively comprehend this type of healing, assuming you meet all future predictive markers. You are, as your actions demonstrate, still misdirecting your attention. We regret to inform you that based upon our observations, the future of Earth’s being-progress is at the moment decidedly bleak. We are once again offering our assistance. Should you choose to accept our guidance at this critical time, as your predecessors have done before you, you will find us at the southernmost tip of Praslin Island during the March equinox. We have something to ask, a small favor, in return.

It was unsigned. Jacob minimized the screen. He went out to the station’s kitchen, where two grad students were arguing about cricket. He took a beer from the fridge and drank it down.

He’d taken to bridling his phone in the hatch of his cargo shorts where he’d once carried Patel’s gun, and before he could get back to the office to call Patel, it vibrated. Unknown. Jacob answered.

“Jacob,” the voice was garbled, as if underwater, “it’s Pagbir.”

“Pagbir, thank God. What time is it there?”

“Did you see that email?”

Jacob was nearly running down the hall and, once in the office, slammed the door behind him. “So you saw it, too? Can you believe it? I thought I was going crazy. What are you going to do?”

“What do you mean what am I going to do? I’m going to fire someone’s ass.”

“Whose?”

“Whoever the hell sent that email. I could be shut down. Maybe even brought up on charges—” There was silence on the other end. Then static. Patel’s garbled voice returned. “Here’s Iris. I’ve got to go.”

“Wait, are you going to tell her?”

“Tell her what? Are you kidding me? And ruin her honeymoon? Hell no. It’s either Feng or Click. One of the two.” More static.

“Or me. It could have been me.” Jacob wanted to air the obvious.

“I’m going to murder those deceiving pricks. I gotta go.”

“But wait, why not an email? From E.T., why not an email?”

“What? You can’t be serious. There’s no—” Jacob could hear the muffled sound of a woman’s voice. Then the sound of something moving, wind or water. Patel was back. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that. You know as well as I do that Iris’s DNA won’t make it to any destination in our lifetime. What we received tonight was not a message from aliens. It was an email, from an asshole. Just an email from an asshole. Probably Click.”

“Of course.” Jacob was studying the new liver spots forming on his hands. “Click’s a prick. And he has it out for Iris.”

“Exactly,” Patel said. “Exactly.”

The next morning, Jacob arrived to find Molly and Victoria on the sofa, a modern, uncomfortable expanse of linen cushion supported by steel bars. Molly had fixed Victoria’s hair, taking advantage of their daughter’s flaccidity, and she looked childish in a way Jacob knew would’ve infuriated her.

“We wandered the house half the night. She just walks around touching things and I follow her. I think her clock’s all messed up,” Molly said, yawning.

He sat between them, taking Victoria by the wrist and placing her hand in his lap. It moved easily, independent from her frozen body. “Open your mouth.” He took a cotton swab from a vial in his pocket. “I need to check you for emu ticks.” Victoria obliged.

“What are you doing?” Molly asked, seeming only vaguely interested. Her hair was greasy and hung limply over her forehead. She smelled of last night’s wine.

“I need her DNA. I found someone, a specialist. One last thing I want to try. Okay? Is that okay, baby?” This last part was directed at his daughter. She nodded.

“That’s fine,” Molly said, “as long as we can still go home on Thursday.”

“Absolutely. But we may need to come back this way, Molly. If it looks promising, we may need to come back in March.”

Jacob went out to the courtyard. The sky was clear. A lone emu approached, warbling with interest. The rainy season would be here soon, and the emus would move to a small ranch in town. They could’ve belonged to another race of beings once upon a time, maybe Victoria was right about that. The Christmas lights still hung from Galileo. Jacob began unwrapping them gently. “I’m sorry, buddy. This was beneath you.”

He looked back through the house at Molly and Victoria in the living room. Victoria had laid her head on her mother’s shoulder. Her red hair spread across her mother’s freckled arm. From this view, all was perfect. From here, they were ideal.

###

Flight front coverSusan White Norman is a fiction writer and teacher. Currently, she’s exploring the intersection of humanity and technology in her work and with her students. She teaches at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“Earthlings” was originally published in Flight (TLR, Winter 2015)