I’m not one of those writers who shares unfinished things.
I mean, with anyone. I have no beta readers, and it may or may not distress you to learn I haven’t worked with an editor in over a year.
I don’t like showing off things that I know are going to change, by my own hand, in my personal editing process. Right now, for instance, I have about half of a new Fixer book written, and about a fifth of a new Immortal book, and I’m not nearly happy enough with any part of these manuscripts to want someone who isn’t me looking at them.
This new book–my latest ‘work-in-progress’ or WIP if you wish to engage in writerspeak– is one of those rare occasions when I’ve written something that feels pretty close to final-draft right away. It’s also a situation where I’m writing something that isn’t like anything I’ve written before, and that means I have to spend a little more time getting you, the reader, ready for it. After all, I didn’t need to do anything to get you excited about a new Fixer book or a new Immortal book other than tell you they exist.
A Notion of Aliens
That’s the working title of the new novel. Other titles I’ve considered are “The Meteor That Took a Right Turn” and “Annie’s Idea of Aliens.” By the time I’m done with the book, I may have come up with a title I like better than any of these, but for now “A Notion of Aliens” is it.
Here’s the first chapter.
The Fault In Our Starship
The space ship landed on a cool night in August, in a field that wasn’t being used for anything in particular.
Like most remarkable things, nobody realized it was remarkable as it happened. The ship lit up the sky above Sorrow Falls when it entered the upper atmosphere, but that was only slightly unusual in the way a meteor could be slightly unusual.
Later, eyewitness accounts would describe the evening as becoming as bright as daytime in that moment, but this was a profound exaggeration. The truth was, while the object flashed brightly, one had to already be looking skyward to see it. If one were instead looking at the road, or the television, or the ceiling, the craft would have gone unnoticed as it traveled toward that field on the edge of town.
It was also nearing Midnight, on a Tuesday.
Prior to the arrival of the space ship, Sorrow Falls was a prototypical rural mill town, which was to say there was nothing unusual or spectacular about it. Most residents were either mill employees or farmers. Nearing Midnight, on a Tuesday in August, just about everybody was sleeping.
It’s possible the sonic boom woke up one or two people, but as was the case with the supposed eyewitnesses startled by the profound brightness that didn’t happen, the boom was unlikely to have awoken anyone, as the sound made by the object was more like a pop. To those who did hear it, the volume was approximately equivalent to that of a Jake braking eighteen-wheeler two blocks away.
In other words, had the space ship arrived at the surface of the earth as the meteor it initially resembled, the number of people who claimed to have seen its passage across the sky would have dwindled significantly.
It wasn’t a meteor though, and it didn’t behave like one. Not entirely.
Meteors didn’t slow down and turn. Meteors didn’t have landing lights. And in all of history there had never been a recorded instance of a meteor hovering. These exceptions to the standard trajectory of a falling object are what convinced the handful of true witnesses that this was indeed a remarkable thing.
Someone called the police. (Two hundred and seventeen people in the town claim to have made the call; nobody knows who actually did.) At the time, the Sorrow Falls local police force consisted of twenty-two officers—two of whom were on maternity leave at the time—and seven official squad cars. Three of those cars were dispatched to locate the object.
They couldn’t find it.
In fairness to those officers, they were told to locate a brightly glowing object that had landed from space, which wasn’t a particularly accurate description once the ship touched down and turned its lights off. Also, they had every reason to believe there was no such object and somebody had been drinking.
That left the job of first contact with the alien spacecraft to a man named Billy Pederson. This was entirely due to a combination of luck and an unkind work schedule, as Billy happened to be the first person to drive down the road nearest to the unused field—or if not the first person, the first one to look to his right at the correct moment—and spot the object through an opening in the trees.
He would say later he knew what was there was not of this world, but that wasn’t the truth. The truth (as he would admit in private to anyone who asked provided they didn’t work for a media outlet) was that his first thought was where did this house come from and how did it go up overnight?
The space ship did not look like a house, but Billy’s initial perception was understandable only because most rational people tend to go to “interstellar spacecraft” last, after exhausting other options.
It also wasn’t large enough to be a proper house. A pool house, perhaps, or a large shed.
It was a matte black vehicle resting on four squat legs, with a curved surface and with no apparent door. The sides were a warren of tubes and vents and dark round holes that looked either like a place for spotlights or—if you were in the midst of a nightmare and looking at this craft—eyeballs.
It was arguably saucer-like, and no doubt looked round from beneath or above, but from the side it looked like a tall, black, birthday cake, or an unusually thick and wide cap on a steam pipe.
The ship sat in a ring of blackened grass. Again, what Billy did next depended upon who was asking. To the many, many interviewers he sat with after the morning of first contact, he would say that he reached the edge of the landing ring (as it was soon called) and understood somehow that going any further would be dangerous, so he stopped and called the sheriff.
That wasn’t really true. He actually did step past the burnt grass ring, and got within about five or six feet of the ship before deciding he didn’t really feel like getting any closer.
When asked to elaborate on this, he couldn’t.
“I dunno, I just sort of lost interest,” he said. “Didn’t seem important any more.”
He did call the sheriff, though. Thus, the first confirmed sighting of an alien space ship on the planet was recorded in the police logs at 6:42 A.M., August 14th, as a case of possible trespassing.
* * *
The police came, and someone remembered the meteor hunt from the night before and connected it to the strange object in the field, and then more police came. Then the fire department, a couple of state police troopers, and an ambulance for some reason, and soon the tiny road—at the time it was called Tunney Way—was so overrun with vehicles nobody could get past.
Sometime around 10:00 A.M., the sheriff got his hands on a bullhorn and started asking if the occupants of the ship could please come out with your hands up. This sparked a minor debate as to the likelihood that anyone inside the space ship A: understood English, and B: had hands. The debate and the question were both moot, though, as nobody inside the craft responded in any obvious way. It didn’t open, or make a noise, or flash a light, or react in any real sense.
Another debate ensued regarding the legitimate alien-ness of the ship and the potential that this was only an elaborate hoax. The fire chief pointed out that the craft could easily be something constructed out of cardboard and foam, and surely if that were the case it would be light enough to be moved to the field in one evening, perhaps specifically on an evening when a meteor had also been spotted. The report could have even been a part of the hoax: perhaps there was no meteor either.
This theory gained enough traction that by 11:30, the sheriff had decided to postpone the call he’d been planning to make to the National Guard and just walk up to the ship and see what was what.
He and two of his deputies did just that, retracing the same steps Billy had taken and getting just about as far, until all three of them decided this was actually a bad idea—suffering, some said, from a sudden and inexplicable lack of fortitude—and they should try something else.
They stepped back. And when it was pointed out that by not getting any closer they had failed to resolve the question of whether or not the object was a large prank, the sheriff took out his gun, dropped to a knee, and fired two rounds at the center of the ship.
A spectacular thing—the first real spectacular thing—happened.
The bullets ceased to exist. They reached a certain point in the air beyond the skin of the ship’s hull, flashed brightly, and then were gone, much like a mosquito in a bug zapper. Their disappearance was accompanied by a deep THUD, like a thousand pianos hitting a low C at the same time. It wasn’t so much heard as felt, deep in the belly near the umbilical.
It was enough to convince the sheriff not to fire a third round.
He got to his feet and turned to the nearest deputy.
“Somebody get me the President,” he said.
Of all the embellishments surrounding the events of the morning of first contact, one thing remained true: he actually did say that.
* * *
Calling the President of the United States was not something the sheriff’s department of a small Massachusetts mill town could just do, it turned out. There were steps to take, and jurisdictions to consider, and people to convince.
Convincing people was a big hurdle. It didn’t much matter how sane and level-headed any one person in this chain of reportage was, the person on the other end of each link was going to begin with, no really, why are you calling? and there wasn’t much anyone could do about that.
Compounding the problem was that as far as anybody was concerned, alien space ships didn’t simply land at the edge of little towns in the Connecticut River valley, and if they did, they didn’t land only there. Admittedly, that opinion was colored by Hollywood movies and science fiction books, but those stories were further informed by actual military history and tactics. If the ship was the vanguard of an invasion, it was in the wrong place. If it was part of a fleet, there would have been other ships. If it was lost, it would have moved, or asked for directions. If it was disabled—it didn’t look disabled, but how would anybody know?—somebody would have asked for help or a wrench. Or something.
In other words, once past the whole space ship thing, the hardest part about getting the right people to believe that this remarkable event had happened in Sorrow Falls was that the space ship hadn’t done anything.
It just sat there. Sure, it could make bullets disappear, but someone had to shoot the gun. That wasn’t so much a thing it did, as it was a thing it did in response to someone else doing a thing. It was not in any real sense—after landing—a proactive space ship.
Still, the President was eventually notified. It happened about two weeks after the ship landed and approximately six hours before the media was to go live with the story. By the time of the media announcement, the army had already cordoned off the field and taken over about a third of the town. (In fairness, this was not a lot of space in terms of pure acreage, and the actual land was fallow farmland, and the army was, on the whole, extremely polite about the entire thing.)
That evening, the President held a press conference confirming that our planet had been visited by aliens, and Sorrow Falls became the most talked about place in the world.
That was three years ago.