She wasn’t looking when it happened. She was minding her own business, just thumbing through magazines and clipping things out of them. She had a huge pile of cut-out elephants and castles and satellite photos of rivers stacking up on the floor in her room. She didn’t know what she was going to do with them, but this felt like it was helping. So she didn’t see it happen, but she heard the sound, and that sure snapped her out of it.
It sounded like thunder ripped a hole in the sky and something fell out. It whistled while it fell like a cartoon bomb. The note got lower and lower, and then it hit with a thud and a clank. It was either very close or very big, going by the sound.
She jumps up and runs to the window, still holding the scissors. A trail of brown smoke streaks from left to right and then disappears into the trees. For like five seconds, she considers what to do. She could either pretend like some flaming thing hadn’t fallen out of the sky and continue clipping magazines, or she could go for a walk and see what’s up. Not a hard decision.
So she puts down the scissors, straps on her shoes, and runs out of the apartment. She flies down the concrete stairs, runs through the little arch into the yard behind the building, and heads for the trees. Birds are looking over at the smoke trail like, “Whaaaaat?” She is gonna go find out.
After picking her way through the woods for a while, she starts to smell something. It’s like burnt eggs or rotten toast or some kind of weird, mixed-up bad breakfast like that. The smoke trail goes right overhead, getting kind of wispy now, but it’s still a pretty serious black-brown smear against the air. Whatever fell couldn’t have landed far from here.
A few minutes of walking later, the tops of the trees are singed. A bit farther, they’ve been cut clean off, and blackened branches and pine needles are scattered all over the ground. Up ahead, trees are snapped in half, and she has to climb over them. It’s not long before she’s ducking and weaving around whole trees uprooted by the force of whatever fell out of the sky. And with the trees cleared away, she can see the crash site.
She realizes she probably should have been scared before. Now she is for sure. What she sees, still spewing brown smoke, is something that looks like a chrome toaster as big as a school bus, the front crumpled up like a stubbed-out cigarette butt against a black scar in the ground. And the door is open.
So, this is a spaceship, right? Her eyes are sending images to her brain that don’t make any sense, so she has to figure them out. What else could this be but a spaceship? It isn’t shaped like something that flew through the air. It doesn’t even have wings. Wherever this came from, it fell from very high up.
Which leads her to the question of who or what was inside it — that is, before it opened the door and got out. She doesn’t have much time for that to dawn on her before the answer comes grunting out of the trees butt-first. It’s dragging a huge bundle of splintered trees behind it wrapped in some kind of reflective tarp. The thing — a he, she decides — is huffing and puffing and grunting, heaving the bundle toward the wreckage with all the strength in his little white legs.
She is totally looking at an alien. He has light gray skin, wiry arms and legs, a soft body, long neck, and a big, beautiful head with a shock of yellow hair streaking down the middle. He isn’t wearing any clothes except a pair of chromed-out goggles lifted up on his forehead. They don’t have lenses, just a shiny, metal mask for the eyes. His face is scrunched up with effort, but she can see its fine, swooping features.
“Do you need help?” she asks him.
“WAAAAGH!” He throws his arms up, dropping the bundle, stumbling backwards away from her and landing on his butt. His eyes are big, white orbs with swirly circles of yellow and green staring right at her.
She shows him her empty hands. “I’m not going to hurt you,” she says calmly. “I come in peace. Do you need help with your… sticks?”
Still scooching away from her, he pulls his goggles down over his eyes. After a few seconds, he stops scooching and sits up. Then he pushes up the goggles and says, in a slightly gurgly but quite human-sounding voice, “No, thank you. I am fine. Please go away and pretend that you never saw me here.”
Uh, rude? “That’s not very nice,” she says. “I’m trying to help you. What happened? Did you crash?”
“Please,” he says, pleading now. “This is embarrassing. I do not wish to be embarrassed in front of you.”
“It’s okay, dude,” she says to the gray guy. “I’m not gonna judge you. I crashed my car like last week. It’s fine. Accidents happen.”
“Not over planets like this one!” he wails, throwing his hands in the air again.
“Hey now,” she says, a little offended, honestly. “What’s wrong with our planet?”
“Your planet is not prepared for contact! Your species is not ready! You’re still in a fear-driven mytho-evolutionary stage, and there’s no telling what foreign contact will do to your fragile minds!” He’s practically running around in circles now.
“Do I look fragile to you?” she asks, smirking.
He stops circling and looks at her. He looks for a long time. His eyes widen, and his mouth hangs open a little bit, and his head cocks to one side.
“Hey,” she says, getting a little creeped out. “I asked you a question.” She crosses her arms.
“No,” he says, snapping out of it. “No, you do not look fragile.” He turns back to trying to drag his bundle of sticks to his spaceship.
“Can I help you with that?” she asks again.
He sighs as he strains against the weight. “Uch. Yes. Just—“
She doesn’t let him finish his ornery sentence. She just walks up next to him, grabs hold of the shiny blanket and pulls. She’s a head taller than he is and much stronger in this gravity. They’ve got the bundle next to the ship in no time.
“You’re welcome,” she says when he doesn’t say thank you. “What do we do now?”
“Help me load it into the vehicle,” he says, already hoisting an armful of sticks. “We need to pack it full.”
“Whatever you say,” she says, and they set about their task.
He carries his first bundle through the door and walks all the way in, so she follows him. She ducks under the frame of the tiny opening. It’s mostly dark inside except for a faint red glow from some dials and instruments along the walls. The part that looks like the front is all crunched up against the ground. The floor is not what she expected from her first alien spaceship. It’s made of alternating black and white tiles like the floor of some ‘50s diner.
The alien starts his pile in the corner farthest away from the door, so she follows suit. They bustle in and out of the wrecked spaceship like ants building a new mound. After the whole load is inside, he grabs the blanket and starts walking out to collect more.
She follows him. Neither of them has said a word in a while. “What’s your name?” she asks.
“Meezx,” he says flatly, not looking back at her.
“I’m Anna,” she says, though he didn’t ask. “Nice to meet you.”
“Gather only flammable sticks,” he replies.
They get to work. “Where are you from?” Anna asks, trying to get him to be less of a dick.
“I am from Zrlphf 936, and I would like to return as soon as possible,” Meezx rants as he works.
“I’m from New Mexico,” Anna says, “but I came out here for school and stuff.”
He does not reply.
“We get a lot of aliens in New Mexico, you know.”
Meezx makes a pulsing sound with his throat, and Anna realizes he’s laughing.
“What? You don’t believe me? That’s okay. I don’t believe it, either.”
“That is not why I am laughing,” Meezx says. “It is the word that you used.”
“Yes. It is a demonstration of your species’ lack of understanding.”
“Help me understand, then,” Anna says. “What are we missing?” She dumps an armful of wood onto the blanket.
“Among the obvious technological capabilities,” Meezx begins, straining to lift a big log, “you are missing the planetary networking capabilities with which you will be able to understand each other for the first time.” He dumps the log onto the blanket with a thud. “Until you understand each other, you will never understand anyone else.”
Anna’s the one laughing now. “I think I understand you pretty well.”
“You do not understand,” Meezx says, his voice trembling a little.
“Sure I do. You crashed your ship on our primitive little planet,” she says as she lifts another load, “and you’re probably in huge trouble, and now you’ve got a primitive human helping you, and you’re embarrassed, and you’re compensating by being an asshole, dude. It’s obvious.”
He stops, looking shocked, and then regains his composure. “It is nothing of the sort,” he says quietly, and he gets back to work.
“You don’t have to show off for me,” she says. She feels kind of badly for calling him out. All she really wants is to get to know an alien. “I promise you I’ll think you’re cool no matter what you do. It’s not like I know very many aliens.”
“Foreigners,” he says. “Say ‘foreigners,’ not ‘aliens.’”
“Okay, foreigners. Tell me about your foreign land.”
As they keep piling wood into the spaceship, Meezx tells Anna about the Zrlphf system, its binary stars, the hundreds of moons and planets spinning around them, the great war over the giant diamond moon that scattered his people across many worlds, and all the crazy exploration they’ve done since. At this point, they’re just trying to get away from each other. They can’t make peace, but they want to stop fighting, so they’re just moving as far away from each other as they can.
“Sounds like you guys could use some better ‘networking capabilities,’” she jokes.
“Interplanetary networking is another problem entirely,” he tries to explain, but he concedes her point. “But there are always ever greater challenges when trying to communicate.”
“It never gets easier, does it?” Anna asks rhetorically.
“It does not.”
They carry on working in silence for a while. Before long, the cabin is almost full. “Why are we doing this, anyway?” Anna asks.
“To start a fire inside the ship,” Meezx says matter-of-factly.
“What? Why? Don’t you need it to go home?”
“This ship will never return home,” Meezx says with a sigh, “but it did not receive enough damage to trigger the long-range distress signal. I have to destroy the cabin and burn up all the oxygen to trigger the signal. It only works once, and only in emergencies.”
“And then what?” she asks. “Your people get the signal and come pick you up?”
“Yes,” Meezx says darkly. “That is the hope.”
Anna realizes that he’s scared. They might not ever get his message. Even if they do, they might not come looking for him. She doesn’t have to ask him these painful questions to know this.
He dumps the last load of logs into the door of the ship and looks at her with big, green eyes. “I am scared,” he says.
“Dude,” she says, moving towards him. “I am scared, too.” She puts her arms around him, and to her surprise, he hugs her back. “I’m scared, too,” she says again. “I’m scared we’ll never figure out how to understand each other. I’m scared we’ll start a great war over a giant diamond, and we won’t have anywhere to run away. I’m scared of what other people would have done to you if they’d found you first. I’m scared of what they’ll do when they get here. You know they’re coming, right?”
“Yes,” Meezx says. He lets go of her and goes to get something out of a box against the inside wall of the ship. “Others are sure to follow you. What makes you different from them?”
“I’m just…” Anna searches for words. “I’m just weird. I like mysteries, I guess. I like foreigners. I never really felt that close to people who were just like me. I like weirdos. Sometimes I kind of feel like the alien, you know?”
“Yes,” Meezx says. He touches a gray cylinder to the stack of wood, and a few logs burst into flames. The fire jumps across the gaps in the logs, crawling back into the cabin of the crashed spaceship. “Yes, I know.”
As the fire spreads and consumes the ship, Meezx and Anna sit on the ground holding hands, watching the blaze. Black smoke curls up into the sky. Anna thinks she hears sirens.