Yes / No

 

 

Synopsis:

Captain Lang’s repair mission was routine: fix the malfunctioning robotic arm on the International Space Station. What wasn’t routine was the wormhole that opened between Earth and the moon, and the alien vessel that contacted him. Captain Lang figures out how to understand two responses from the aliens: yes and no. This makes it difficult for the aliens to communicate the imminent danger and urgency of Captain Lang’s situation…

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Story:

YES / NO

“Okay, I just replaced the motor control module for the fourth digit,” I report as I snap the module into the circuit board on the back of the robotic arm floating thousands of miles above the Earth. “Give it a try.”

“The fourth digit should flex once, release, then flex again.” Leslie’s voice crackles inside my helmet.

“Roger that,” I acknowledge.

“Andy, I’m not mad. Susan is Devin’s mom, and you want to clear it with her first. I get it.”

“Yup, confirmed.” I give a thumbs-up in front of my body camera along with my confirmation.

“Sorry, do you mean the fourth digit’s motor controls are working, or—”

“That’s what I meant, yes,” I smile. “And as to the other, thanks for understanding. I’m trying to be sensitive to Susan’s feelings.”

“And what about my feelings, Andy?” Doug’s sarcastic Southern baritone ricochets inside my helmet. “Or the feelings of everyone in Houston, listening in? I’m hurt, buddy.”

“Sorry, Doug. Point taken,” I smile. “My apologies for going all soap opera in the middle of our repair.”

“Don’t hog the blame; I started it,” Leslie adds. I can almost hear her smile. Leslie’s smile is thin, but it’s charming the way it seems to erupt spontaneously, pulling the corners of her mouth upwards suddenly, like her facial  muscles were caught by surprise. “Silly, isn’t it? I’m more nervous about meeting your son than repairing a billion-dollar robot arm.”

“No worries.” I stop myself from shrugging. I tend to speak with my arms, hands, and shoulders as well as my mouth. My ex-wife, Susan, used to say if she wanted to shut me up, she’d tie my hands. Gesticulating like that isn’t a problem on the ground, but when floating thousands of miles up, a slight shrug has the potential to throw off my balance, which would affect the repairs I’m doing. “Moving on to digit five.”

“Glad to hear it, Captain Lang,” a woman from Mission Control jumps into the conversation. “And Lieutenant Wheeler, I’m sure Devin will like you. He’s a good kid. We all met him a month ago. Must get it from his mom.”

“Mission Control, permission to make popcorn,” Doug deadpans.

“Thanks for the kind words. Devin loved being shown around the office. And yeah, you’re probably right.” I snort out a chuckle. “I’m replacing the mechanical assembly now.”

I reach for the ratchet attached to my belt and pull the retractable cable to reach Canadarm 4, the five-digited robotic arm I’m repairing. I grab the ratchet in my heavily gloved hand and place it over the large bolt holding in the mechanical assembly for the fifth digit. I brace myself against the side of the arm to try to get a little more leverage and start twisting the bolt. It’s an interesting experience to apply elbow grease in the vacuum of space; I get it twisting and after a few twists the bolt spins off and floats right into my hand. I put the bolt into an empty belt pouch and close it. I then tug gently on the mechanical assembly, which looks like a metal rectangular box the size of a pocket notebook, until it unseats from the circuit board. I gently lift it out of the arm.

“Faulty motor control module has been removed. Inserting new motor control module now.”

I open the large metal case I brought with me and remove an identical-looking assembly. I place the faulty assembly in the large metal case. I snap the case shut and attach it to my belt, then attach the fresh mechanical assembly to the arm.

“All right, digit five’s motor assembly has been replaced. Ready for testing.”

“In a moment digit five should flex once, release, then flex again.”

“Got it.”

I check all my pouches to make sure they’re secure while I wait.

“Andy? Nothing?” Leslie asks.

“Not yet,” I answer.

“Dammit,” Leslie breathes. “Okay, let me check the code and make sure the instructions were properly received, then I’ll test again. I’ll be quick, I promise.”

“I’m good, O2 is good, no worries here,” I say.

“All the same, if you start feeling funky I’ll winch you right back,” Doug says. “And I’m monitoring your vitals from here.”

“Thanks, buddy,” I acknowledge. “I’ll let you know if—”

I’m interrupted by a physical pressure that shoves me against the Canadarm. It’s not a force powerful enough to hurt me or anything, but it’s enough to move me, like a gust of wind. I’m tethered to the station so I’m in no danger of floating away but I grab the arm to steady myself anyway. I don’t know what’s more surprising, feeling like I’m being blown by wind in the vacuum of space or that it’s coming from opposite the station where there shouldn’t be anything near us capable of generating thrust or force.

“Did you two…?”

I turn my head to where I felt the pressure and lose the ability to speak. Far in the vast empty distance, from what looks like some kind of hole in space that just opened up between the Earth and moon, all these glowing spheres and cylinders are pouring out as fast as if someone dumped out the grains in a salt shaker. All those objects stream toward Earth. Fast.

“Hold on, Andy! No time to be gentle!” Doug calls to me as I feel my tether go taut and yank me backwards toward the airlock. My limbs fly out from my torso as I’m pulled through the vacuum.

As fast as I’m being pulled, those objects are faster. They spread out to cover nearly the entire moon-facing side of the Earth, including every satellite and station. Three of them glide up to our station and stop, maybe a few hundred meters or so in front of us, matching our speed and velocity exactly.

The objects that I thought were cylinders aren’t cylinders after all. If anything, they resemble barbells or some of the rubber dog toys or rawhides that litter my apartment: a sphere on each end connected by a cylindrical tube. The three rawhide-shaped objects create a triangle formation: one at the lower right of the station; one at the lower left, parallel to the airlock; and one above the center of the station.

As my tether continues pulling me toward the airlock I get a good look at the closest sphere.

“Mission Control—can you see these things?” I speak into my helmet as I grab my body cam and try to aim it more precisely. “These objects are small—at most each sphere is the size of a shopping cart. The cylindrical tube connecting the spheres looks to be pretty short, too. My tape measure is with my tools but I’ll bet if I tried to lay my six-foot frame across the cylinder my feet would be in one of the spheres and my head in the other. The entire thing looks smooth and rock solid—perhaps metal but not reflective. Leslie, Doug: do either of you have a better view of its color? It doesn’t have any external lights on it and what’s illuminated by our lights seems to be white or off-white.”

“Maybe metallic silver or gray?” Leslie says. “Less than thirty seconds until you’ll be in the airlock. Just hold on, Andy.”

I look around and see the rawhide-shaped objects maintaining the same triangle formations in front of all of our moon-facing satellites and space stations. Numerous triangle formations of those rawhide-shaped objects float in space, hovering between the Earth and moon. The standalone spheres appear to be similar in size to the spheres on each end of the rawhide-shaped objects, but they’re far enough away that I can’t get a good look. The standalone spheres aren’t in triangle formations; they’re congregated in a mass farther away.

The outer hatch of our station’s airlock opens before my tether reaches it. When I get to the airlock entryway I reach over with my left hand and press the manual override on my right sleeve. With a nasty jerk, I stop being pulled and float inches from the open airlock, facing the object.

“Guys, I’m thinking that I can get a tactile reading. With just a couple short bursts from the micro thrusters on my backpack, I can reach it. Don’t worry, I’m remaining tethered at all times.”

“Jesus God almighty, get inside now!” Leslie implores me. “We can investigate from in here!”

“But this is an incredible opportunity, don’t you agree?”

“It could be electrified or—”

“Is it electrified? Leslie, Doug: are you two reading any heat or radiation?”

“We’re taking readings now, but that’s not the point,” Leslie counters. “You’re putting yourself at undue risk. Ours is a repair mission.”

“I don’t think this is undue risk.” I catch myself shaking my head. There’s my talking with my body, again. “I just want to appreciate this thing from a science and engineering standpoint, up close and personal.”

“Andy, I get your curiosity. I joined NASA because I loved space and science fiction and meeting little green men has always been a dream. Yours too. That’s cool. But right now, you’re officially being an idiot,” Doug adds. “So I’m officially going over your head. Mission Control, kindly rip my captain a new one.”

“Captain Lang, Lieutenant Carter’s right. Please return to the station immediately. That is an order. You may conduct any readings, communication attempts, or experiments with the rest of your crew inside.”

“Thank you,” Leslie exhales.

“C’mon, guys! Don’t these look like scientific probes or something to you? I really don’t think they’re killer bots. They’re probably doing what we’d do.”

“Like send an armada?” Leslie says, not sharing my awe. “Just because they’re small doesn’t mean they can’t kill you.”

“I get that danger can come in small packages. But I can’t imagine this is an armada,” I reply.

As soon as I say those words, the sphere nearest me, which I had thought was constructed of some kind of extremely dense and hard metal, starts contorting. The side of the sphere starts to ripple, like a pond that just had a rock thrown in it. Waves begin in the middle of the rounded wall and ripple out, vanishing before they move to a side of the sphere I can’t see. The waves are alternating thick and thin; some disappear when they go out of view but others double back toward the middle point they emanated from. Every now and again a ripple will appear that is a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal line instead of a circle. After a few seconds, the parade of ripples and shapes cease.

“Are you guys all seeing this?” I say.

“Yeah, but we don’t know if it’s saying ‘hi’ or charging its weapons. Andy, neither do you,” Doug admonishes. “Get in here!”

“But only the sphere nearest me did the ripple thing, not the rest. That seems more like communication, don’t you—”

“Captain Lang, Lieutenant Carter is correct,” Mission Control concurs. “You’ve procrastinated following our directive long enough. Proceed into the airlock immediately.”

“Seriously, it doesn’t want to hurt me. Do you, Space Rawhide?”

On cue, a thick and thin wave with a diagonal line through them ripple out.

“Wait…um…Space Rawhide, was that you answering me?”

This time, two thick waves with a horizontal line ripple across the sphere.

“You’re receiving our communications?”

The same two thick waves and horizontal line ripple.

“If you can respond to us, does that mean you’ve studied human language enough to fluently understand it?”

Same pattern.

“Is my language, English, the only human language you have studied?”

This time, the thick and thin wave with the diagonal line ripples across the sphere.

“Okay! Wow! We’re getting somewhere here! I would like to test my hypothesis that the pattern of two thick waves and a horizontal line is yes, and the thick and thin wave with the diagonal line is no. So please respond to the following two test questions: am I a human being?”

The yes pattern ripples across the sphere.

“Am I a fish?”

The no pattern ripples across the sphere.

“Excellent! Well, you probably already know, but I’m Captain Andrew Lang, and in the station are Lieutenant Leslie Wheeler and Lieutenant Douglas Carter.”

A dizzying pattern of thin and thick waves and lines ripple across the sphere.

“I’m sorry,” I chuckle. “I’m not a linguist. I think we’re going to have to stick with yes and no.”

It ripples yes.

“Damn right, you’re not a linguist. ‘Space Rawhide?'”

I smile as I imagine Doug shaking his head at me.

“Please understand, I meant no insult,” I say. “The shape of the object I’m addressing reminds me of an object in my home. If anything, I meant it as a term of endearment. Did I offend you?”

It ripples no.

“There, Doug, intergalactic crisis averted.” I smirk. “So, visiting object: am I addressing a probe?”

It ripples no.

“Is this a craft?”

It ripples yes.

My eyes go wide. “Oh man! So…um…I’m talking directly to a life form from another world inside a craft, sharing our space?”

It ripples yes.

“Incredible! Are you organic, biologically born?”

It ripples yes.

“From one of the nearer systems?”

It ripples yes again.

“Do you know our names for celestial bodies?” Leslie asks.

It ripples yes.

“Are you from the system we call Proxima Centauri?”

It ripples yes.

“Aha!” I clap my hands together. If I wasn’t in space, I’d be jumping up and down. I’m talking to a real extraterrestrial life form!

“Our telescopes found a planet there that could sustain life: are you from the world we call Proxima b?”

It ripples another yes.

“And the spheres out there—are there beings in those, too?”

It ripples no.

“So why are…” I can barely contain myself. I just break into an excited laugh. So many questions! Why are they here? Why so many vessels? Why some piloted by beings, others not? Why so many at once?

I shake my head again. Alien life, here! And not huge, scary, man-eating things, but small craft, small beings—clearly way advanced, but not hostile. I tighten my jaw and hold my breath to try to calm myself down.

“Leslie, Doug, Mission Control—you guys getting all this, right? This is amazing!”

“And it will be just as amazing inside the station,” Leslie says, her taut voice clearly trying to cover her nerves. “You were ordered inside, remember?”

“Don’t worry, Leslie, it’s fine.” I return to addressing the alien vessel: “Am I correct that you don’t want to hurt us?”

It ripples yes.

“See?”

“Visitor Object, do you want or need Captain Lang outside our station?” Doug asks.

It ripples no.

“There you go,” Doug says. “Let’s get you inside.”

I sigh. Doug got me. I’m not going to remain out here if it wants me inside. But damn if this isn’t as excited as I’ve ever been.

“Is Captain Lang in danger?” Leslie asks.

It ripples yes.

“Andy!”

“Okay, okay—am I in danger from you or your craft?”

It ripples no as I’m shoved against the station wall, inches from the opening to the airlock by another force wave like the first one. I turn to where the wave came from and see what appears to be four long, huge, thick metal bars—but really long, they’re not even fully out yet—streaming out of a portal or wormhole or doorway like the previous visitors used. Only these things look bigger than the biggest human vessel I’ve ever seen. Skyscrapers in space, practically.

The sphere of the rawhide-shaped craft that I’d been communicating with seems to go crazy with ripples and shapes.

“You know that I don’t—”

“Andy, I think it’s shouting at you to get the fuck inside already!” Leslie raises her voice.

The sphere stops rippling for just long enough to pause and ripple yes.

“Okay, thanks guys,” I say to everyone who can hear me. I grab the side of the open hatch and swing myself inside the airlock. As soon as I’m inside, the fluorescent light flickers to life. Doug triggers the external hatch to swing shut. I hear the sound of the hatch and airlock making a vacuum seal, and then the hissing as the tiny room gets pressurized and filled with air. As soon as the pressure sensor by the hatch to the station proper turns green, I unclasp and twist off my helmet.

Before I can even lift it off, Leslie twists open the inner airlock door and floats up to me.

“What the hell, Andy!” She pounds on my chest. “That was stupid and—”

“Hey, Leslie, I’m fine.” I put down my helmet and take her hands in mine.

“You idiot!” She puts her hands on my cheeks and holds me in a way that feels simultaneously tender and pissed off. “We’re fragile sacks of meat and water; just a little mistake that rips your suit—”

“Please stop fighting and get over here,” Doug’s voice crackles over the intercom. “There is a serious situation brewing.”

Leslie and I take a moment to look into each other’s eyes. Then she grabs me, pushes against the wall to propel herself forward faster in the low gravity of our station, and pulls me out of the airlock before I have time to take off my heavy space suit. We float across the hallway to the cockpit. Doug turns and then points out the window.

The three spacecraft around our ship have increased their distance from our station while maintaining their triangle formation. The spheres become reddish in color and seem to be emitting a red glow toward the other spheres. The glow shines off of the occasional particulate matter in low Earth orbit, making it look like all the craft are connected by broken red beams of light, forming a barely visible red triangle around our station.

“Same pattern everywhere.” Leslie points sequentially out the window at each triangular formation of visiting spacecraft. Everywhere she points, the rawhide-shaped craft form red beam triangles between us and those huge objects streaming out of the gateways.

“And those?” I muse as I unzip my suit and step out of it, letting it float behind me.

“You mean the huge steel girder-looking things?” Leslie points.

“Girders longer and thicker than any skyscraper I’ve ever seen. Those protrusions look like solar sails.” Doug swings his arm around to indicate he’s pointing at the rear of one of them.

“Yeah,” Leslie agrees. “Maybe the sails are helping them move so damn fast. They’re almost halfway here!”

It’s true; they seem to be covering unthinkably huge numbers of kilometers every second. They’re close enough already that I can just make out that their surfaces are lined with what resembles toothpicks all over their fronts and sides.

“That can’t be good: those side projections are spitting in our direction,” Doug breathes.

“They’re not spitting,” I swallow. “They’re shooting.” The projectiles get close enough for me to tell they’re huge and long, like spears as big as trucks or something. And there are thousands of them, racing toward every Earth station and satellite—and the surface of the Earth itself.

“I’m not a weapons specialist, but given what I know about firing projectiles in a vacuum, I’m gonna guess the space assholes have some kind of advanced technology railguns,” Doug says. “That way they don’t need to lug fancy, expensive ordnance through the wormhole. Just grab huge cylindrical rods or rocks or whatever: shoot them fast enough and given the velocity they’ll pound us like an asteroid.”

“Space assholes? And here you got on my case for space rawhide.”

“Yeah, well, what would you call them?” Doug retorts.

There’s no time to say much else. Five of those huge projectiles racing toward us are only hundreds of kilometers in front of us, and they’ll close that distance in the blink of an eye. All five projectiles will pass between the Space Rawhides—right into us.

With seconds until impact, Leslie wraps her arm around me and her other arm around Doug. I embrace Leslie’s back and grab Doug’s arm, also embracing Leslie.

We all squeeze tighter.

When the projectiles get a few hundred meters away the tips cross into the center of the triangle formed by our visitors’ crafts.

“They’re disintegrating!” Leslie breathes.

“Our visitor friends must be here to protect us,” I say, stating the obvious like a pro.

As if on cue, the left sphere on the craft I’ve been talking to ripples yes.

“Thank you for your impenetrable shields on behalf of—well—everyone,” I say.

“Not impenetrable by energy,” Doug says. He retracts his arm and springs to the center console, sitting down and swiping away at the thruster controls. Leslie and I look at each other in confusion until we both feel the slight wobble. Debris or energy from the disintegrating projectiles is moving our station.

“I’ll keep us centered behind their force field,” Doug says, guiding some of the thrusters from his console.

I nod, but then quickly realize that Doug isn’t facing me and can’t see the nod. “Good thinking.”

“Need us to do anything?” Leslie asks.

“Keep an eye on my driving,” Doug says.

“Will do,” I answer.

I scan as much of the scene as I can see from the large rectangular station window. The space rawhides do their best to catch all the projectiles in their energy field, but seeing the occasional satellite and alien craft debris stands as a stark reminder that all it takes is one failure to destroy a station or create a massive catastrophe on Earth.

Leslie grabs me tighter, eyes wide. Without saying a word, she points out the window and above us, into the distance. The remote piloted spheres that came with our protectors collide with the huge attacking craft. The spheres smash into them, then burst out the other side. The spheres are tiny compared to the giant behemoths, but there are thousands of them piercing the huge vessels, slowly making them look like Swiss cheese. The spheres are definitely taking a toll on our attackers. The huge attacking vessels have slowed and seem more worried about firing at the spheres than us.

“Hang on!” Doug yells.

I grab Leslie.

A projectile resembling a long, thin asteroid clips the spacecraft that had been opposite our airlock. The impact splits open its left sphere and sends it spinning toward us. The craft rights itself the instant before it slams into us, but its left sphere cracks open. A small, vacuum-cleaner sized globule of some kind of thick, viscous liquid or gelatin floats out of it. Slowly but surely, the globule loses its perfectly spherical shape as the outer edges bubble off into space.

“Holy shit—that’s one of them!” I point out the window at the center of the globule, at what looks like some kind of hydrazoic-shaped being, spheroid but with lots of short tentacles flailing in the globule. I assume they’re flailing in panic. I sure would be.

“We’ve got to help,” Leslie whispers.

I gently press Leslie’s arm. “Canadarm.”

She pulls out the chair next to Doug and immediately starts maneuvering the arm toward the globule. Doug sees what Leslie’s doing and pops the hatch on the airlock. Leslie guides Canadarm to the globule and then taps around her control screen to open its fingers.

“Well, shit.” Leslie grits her teeth.

I look out the window and see that the fifth digit we never got working still doesn’t work, which reduces Canadarm’s ability to grab.

“It’s okay,” Leslie breathes, intensely focused. “I got this.”

She continues tapping away and rather than trying to grab the globule, she nudges the not-quite-open-handed robot arm to gently tap the globule. We all breathe a sigh of relief that the globule has enough viscosity to not fall apart as Leslie guides the globule toward the airlock. It’s precision work—she doesn’t want to press too hard and push through the substance, so rather than continuous contact with the globule she’s opting for soft, course-correcting nudges. But after a few white-knuckle, teeth-clenching moments, the globule floats into our airlock. With a huge sigh of relief, Doug seals the hatch.

I lean down and kiss the back of Leslie’s head, shove my still-floating suit out of the way, and propel myself to the airlock. The lights are on, illuminating the globule and the alien inside. I don’t see any sort of sensory organs like eyes or ears or a mouth on either its spherical body or its short, thick tentacles. I can see that its surface isn’t very smooth; it looks rough and pocked, like stone. It changes colors rapidly, cycling between white, blue, and gray, but its tentacles don’t seem to be flailing quite as frantically. I tap the communication panel on the door.

“We can increase the atmospheric pressure in the airlock; is this beneficial to you?”

It ripples yes.

“Doug—”

“On it,” he interrupts.

I hear the hissing of the pressure in the airlock rising.

“We can adjust the atmospheric pressure to any setting, from less pressure than we use for ourselves, to more pressure. Your viscous substance held its shape far longer than I would have expected in a vacuum. Does this mean a lower pressure than our atmosphere is best for you?”

Another ripple of yes.

“Pressurize about halfway,” I instruct Doug.

“Gotcha.” After a moment, the hissing stops. The globule of viscous substance with the being inside floats in the middle of the airlock, completely stable. It stops changing colors, settling into a deep navy blue.

“Has your…whatever it is, protective liquid—”

A flurry of ripples and lines crisscross the globule.

“Thanks for the explanation, but I’m afraid I don’t understand. I’m sure you’d like to have a real conversation right now, but we’re stuck with yes and no.”

Yes ripples across the globule.

“Have you lost too much of the solution?”

It ripples no.

“That’s good. So, are you okay?” I shake my head, embarrassed at the stupidity of my question. This being has just been smashed out of his high-tech vessel into the cold vacuum of space, light years from home. It’s now more or less helpless inside an unfamiliar alien space station that  must be laughably primitive compared to what it’s used to. On top of all that, our communication is limited to two words. I might as well have asked Mrs. Lincoln how she enjoyed the play after President Lincoln was shot.

Despite all that, the globule ripples yes. I sigh and lean my head against the airlock door, right above the little window, and smile.

“You beautiful, beautiful being.”

It ripples yes again.

Despite the situation, I can’t help but chuckle at its self-aware sense of humor.

“Hey, Cap?” Doug begins, almost astonished. “You’ll wanna check this out.”

“Be right back,” I say to the alien in our airlock. I just catch the globule ripple yes before I turn and float back to the cockpit, pushing against the walls to move faster.

Leslie, still seated at the console, swings sideways and offers me her hand, guiding me to her side. I take it and then put my arm around her shoulders.

All of the huge girder-shaped craft look like they’ve got a whole lot of tiny holes in them now. There are fewer spheres than there were moments ago, but still hundreds, if not more, and they’re still punching through the aggressors. The huge sails at the back of the gargantuan vessels have pivoted so that they’re facing horizontally, more like fins, and the ships are all turning upward in a curved trajectory.

“The space assholes are leaving,” Doug nods.

He’s right. The huge vessels have flipped around upside down and away from us. They have somehow opened another wormhole or gateway in front of them, and they’re propelling themselves into it, leaving our solar system behind.

“Thank God,” I exhale. I give Leslie a quick pat on the shoulder and float back to the airlock.

The globule has moved and is now sliding along the right wall of the airlock, its tentacles gently waving, like it’s trying to touch the sides of our station.

“They’re leaving,” I say into the intercom while watching it through the window.

It ripples yes.

“Did you hear our cockpit banter? Or are you in communication with your vessels?” I shut my eyes and shake my head, feeling silly for asking a two-part question.

It ripples yes twice.

“So you are monitoring us as well as communicating with your kind?”

It ripples yes.

“Is this attack over?”

It ripples yes.

I exhale again, relief flooding over me. “Our friend rippled yes,” I tell my crew and Mission Control and anyone else listening in.

“I saw,” Leslie smiles, floating up behind me and putting an arm around me. “Hi,” she waves through the window to the airlock. “I’m Leslie.”

It ripples yes.

“On behalf of the human race, thank you all for saving us. Whatever assistance you all need from us to take care of your stranded or wounded, you will have.”

Leslie turns to me with a wide-eyed expression, reminding me that I have no real authority to make that promise. All I can really control is what’s up here on our station, and even then only until we’re relieved.

It ripples no.

“Am I correct that you are indicating you don’t need our help?”

It ripples yes.

“Guys, the space assholes are gone, and our saviors are all going back through their own fresh new wormhole,” Doug informs us. “Looks like an intact ship with two spheres just flew right beside us and opened a hatch or something in its middle cylinder. I’ll be that’s for our buddy in the airlock.”

“So you’ll make it home,” I smile.

It ripples yes.

“I’m very glad. So, I have to ask—you knew that those guys were coming to attack us, correct?”

It ripples yes.

“And you came to protect us.”

It ripples yes again.

“I wish I could ask you more complex questions, like why you came with both piloted and unpiloted craft. Can you not pilot your spheres through the wormhole?”

It ripples no.

“Maybe that force-field technology requires piloted craft as well,” Leslie adds.

It ripples yes.

“Your ride is here, so we’ll pop the airlock for you. Again, thank you for our lives, for our species and world.”

The globule doesn’t ripple, but it waves its tentacles at the airlock door. I have no idea what that gesture means, but I’m going to assume it’s accepting our thanks.

“Hey, will some of you, or even one of you, stay long enough for us to learn your language, so we can communicate more thoroughly?” Leslie asks.

It ripples no.

No? Both Leslie and I share a wide-eyed, confused glance.

“I don’t understand. You don’t really know us; you’ve only experienced us from transmissions and communications, not what we’re like in person. You saved us…. Don’t you want to get to know us now, for real?” Leslie asks.

The globule shimmers with a flurry of ripples and shapes, which I assume is the verbose explanation as to why it wants to leave.

“Maybe they feel like they do know us,” I suggest. “Maybe they’ve monitored enough of our news and events to know how we treat each other, how we treat strangers, and they don’t want any part of that.”

It ripples yes.

“I hate being right all the time,” I quip.

“But that’s not all we are, I promise,” Leslie says, almost imploring. “We’ve got some bad people, yeah. And sometimes the bad people are elevated to positions of authority, and they are terrible. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us are like them. Please don’t judge our entire species by our worst.”

It doesn’t respond.

“Have you met other species that have had the issues with their own kind that we do, and changed for the better?” Leslie asks.

It ripples yes.

Leslie sighs with a contented nod.

“Have you also met species that haven’t changed and have destroyed themselves?” I ask.

Again it ripples yes.

“Yeah, I figured.” I frown, and turn to Leslie. “Leslie, I think they’ve made up their mind.”

Another yes ripple.

“Can’t argue with that, unfortunately.”

“Okay, so from the species you’ve experienced compared to ours, do you think we have it in us to be successful, to overcome our self-destructive impulses?” Leslie asks.

It ripples yes, then immediately ripples no.

“Yes/no?” Leslie tilts her head.

“Do you mean maybe?” I say.

It ripples yes.

“Well, if we do conquer our demons, will you know?”

It ripples yes again.

“And make contact with us?”

Another ripple yes.

“Promise?” I offer it a melancholy smile through the airlock window.

It glides over to the airlock door and gently bobs against it a couple of times.

Leslie shoots me a puzzled expression, but I think I get it. “Doug, pressurize the airlock so we can open the door.”

“You sure, boss?”

“Not really, but do it anyway.”

I can hear the hissing inside the airlock as the atmospheric pressure rises. The globule compresses slightly, but it’s still large enough to fully envelop our friend inside. When the hissing stops, Leslie and I step back and pull open the door.

The globule glides to the opening, and then stops hovering in front of me at about abdominal height. The being inside changes color to a lighter blue, and its tentacles wave at my hand slowly, up and down. I figure I know what the motion represents, and slowly stretch out my hand.

“You sure?” Leslie says in her tightly controlled, worried voice.

“Yeah,” I nod. “I figure they must know us pretty well, and it wouldn’t offer if it knew it would hurt me.”

When my hand enters the globule it feels like I’ve just stuck my hand in Jell-O that isn’t finished setting. It’s soft and squishy and wet, thicker than most liquids I’m familiar with but not quite a solid either. My hand feels slightly tingly, like the blood flow is returning after it fell asleep, but it doesn’t hurt. I wonder if this substance plays some role in the being’s sensory perception.

It gently touches my hand with four small tentacles that are the thickness of thumbs. Its tentacles are smooth, not suckered like an octopus. There’s no sense of stinging or tingling coming from touching the tentacles. As soon as we touch, it continues the waving, mimicking a human handshake.

Jesus Christ, I am shaking hands with an extraterrestrial. One who flew light years just to save our sorry little lives, so maybe we can evolve into something greater, even though it probably thinks we’re gonna blow it anyway. I stop breathing as my heart skips a beat.

“Thank you, my friend, for giving my son a chance,” I manage to force out, keeping my jaw tight to hold in my emotions. “All our daughters and sons. We’ll do better. We’ll try.”

The globule slides itself back into the airlock and I retract my hand. My hand still tingles like it did inside the globule, but to my surprise it’s not wet. I don’t think a single molecule of that substance remains on me.

It ripples yes.

Leslie closes the airlock door. “Doug, drop the pressure in the airlock. Time to send our friend home.”

“Doing it now. Safe travels, buddy. Thanks for everything,” Doug says over the intercom.

Leslie and I stare out the little window on the airlock door as Doug depressurizes the airlock and pops the outer hatch. The globule leaves our station quickly enough that it seems it’s being pulled by some kind of force or beam that we can’t see. As soon as the globule is inside the center cylinder of the vessel, the opening closes and the vessel spins away.

“C’mon.” I take Leslie’s hand, my own hand no longer tingling. “I’m sure the media blitz has already begun. Proof of alien life, threat to the planet, damage to our satellites, everything. There’s a lot to talk about—probably for years, decades, maybe more—and we’re at the center of it all. It won’t be long before everyone on Earth wants to talk to us. But there’s only one person on the surface not working for NASA I’m thinking of right now. How about we grab the satellite phone and call Devin.”

“Both of us? Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.” I hold Leslie’s cheeks and plant my lips firmly on hers.