The strangeness in tonight’s darkening sky—a glowing green—makes it hard to focus on my studies.
My phone buzzes. A text appears on my screen.
Dad: Need Ur help!!!
Just seeing the word dad followed by the abbreviations and many exclamation points, his way of telling me his message is— important!!!—makes me nervous.
No, not this time. Not only do I have a test tomorrow, but I have flying time scheduled that I worked hard to get. Dad always asks for favors that sound simple, but they end up taking days.
What if this is a real emergency? Or something happened with the twins?
I grab my phone, tapping away on the screen.
I bite a nail, waiting. Underneath my text, the words ‘message delivered’ appear. So, Dad’s phone is working.
Where then is his answer, or the three little dots to show he is typing?
Not even a minute later, I break. “Call Dad,” I tell my phone.
He is playing me. I want to ignore his stupid texts, but if I am wrong, I will never forgive myself.
I grab my phone, scrolling through local news headlines. There are no amber alerts or reports of explosions. So, since the twins are nine, they should be okay.
Study. Forget the unanswered message.
It’s not working.
Fine. I know when I’m beaten. On the off chance I study tonight, I throw a book into my backpack and get my ten-speed bike out of the garage. Two hours should be more than enough time to visit with the twins. Later tonight, I can study.
Shimmering green and orange illuminate the night sky. If I didn’t know better, I would think there are fires in the mountains. Frantically I pedal faster toward my family’s home.
When I finally arrive, the house looks fine. In fact, my father seems rather relaxed sitting in his truck idling in the driveway.
Through his rolled-down window, Dad calls out to me, “Good girl. I knew you would come.”
I hate that nickname. “Dad, I already told you, I am—”
“Twenty-two years old,” he says, laughing.
“Which means I am not a child,” I huff. “Why didn’t you answer your text? Or pick up the phone when I—”
“Calm down, Ava. I only need you to watch the twins while I try to get my hands on a meteor. Then I can pay for you to get all the flying time you need.”
I take a deep breath. Be firm. Don’t let him boss you around. “Thanks, Dad, but between my part-time job and volunteering, I’ve got my flight hours covered. I don’t have time to–”
He revs the engine. “That’s great, sweetie. Look after Hannah and Oliver. See you later.”
“What? Are you listening to me? I need–”
Dad throws the truck in reverse, spewing pebbles. Tires screech as the truck accelerates down the road.
How have I fallen for another one of his schemes? I kick the ground. “But I need to study for my test tomorrow.”
My snarky brother Oliver calls out from the porch, “Way to speak up for yourself, sis.”
Seconds later, my sister Hannah emerges from the garage. She runs toward me, already wearing her exploring gear—goggles, a headlamp, and a big backpack. “Can we go?”
Hannah might be small for a 9-year-old, but unless I keep hold of her, she is likely to bound off into the forest.
I firmly grab the straps of her backpack. “Go where?”
Hannah speaks so fast that I can only catch snatches of her conversation. “Emergency radio communications… lights… sky… UFOs… We need to go look for the aliens, now!”
I sigh. I don’t know what is worse: my dad who has left me with the twins for the night, or my sister who is ready to run off into the forest.
I turn her back toward the house. “Nope, too dangerous. Let’s go inside.”
“Not fair! I want to meet the aliens,” she whines.
“Why can’t we search for a meteor, too? If we find one, we could sell it, probably for a hundred dollars. Then we could buy you a plane,” says Oliver.
“First of all, a plane costs more than a hundred dollars, and second of all, it’s dangerous.”
“Why should Dad get to have all the fun?” Oliver says.
“Yeah, why does Dad get to have all the fun,” Hannah shouts.
Is anyone even listening to me? It is going to be a long night.
I look off toward the forest. The glowing green light pulsates, making everything feel magical. Combined with the excitement of my brother and sister, well…
Explore, my mind whispers.
If we were lucky enough to find a meteor, we probably wouldn’t be able to afford a plane, but maybe we could buy other nice things. My sister relies on the library for books. I imagine how fun it would be to take her to a bookstore, let her run amuck, and bring home all the books she wants.
“Yeah, why does Dad get to have all the fun,” I repeat.
Oliver looks at me with a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Yes!”
“What’s happening,” asks Hannah.
“Only if you both follow the rules,” I say sternly.
Oliver makes an X over his chest and when Hannah glances back and forth between us, Oliver grabs her wrist and moves her like a puppet, making an X over her chest, too.
“We promise,” says Oliver, dropping Hannah’s hand.
I roll my eyes. Oliver’s sugary sweetness is an act. More like he is trying to coerce me, but…
Why does Dad get to have all the fun?
I don’t want to be completely irresponsible. “Hannah, what do you have in your backpack?”
“A constellation map, a plant identification book from the library, a flashlight, extra batteries, snacks, juice boxes, and—”
“Good enough. Let’s go.”
Some might think leading kids into the forest at night is dangerous. It isn’t. The woods were our backyard growing up, our place for adventures and even foraging for food whenever dear old dad disappeared for a couple of days. Tonight, tromping through the woods feels different; the world crackling with possibilities, until…
White light flickers and flashes between the trees. I stop, trying to make sense of what is ahead of us.
Fire and smoke belch from a pit in the ground, and men as large as football linemen climb out.
Oliver taps my arm and points toward some shrubs. I nod. Together we run, diving into them.
“Oliver,” I whisper. “Where is—”
There is a blood-curdling scream. The light from Hannah’s bright headlamp bobs toward us. Chasing after her are large muscular men with alligator-like tails whipping out behind them.
Humans don’t have tails—these must be aliens! They are like a great horde trampling through the forest. Fear curls in my belly; if the twins are to have even a sliver of a chance of escaping, then…
“Oliver, I’m going to rush them, so when Hannah gets to you…” If she makes it to you, although I don’t dare say that part aloud. “Run as fast as you can, take her home, and don’t stop for anything or anyone.”
“No, please don’t, she wanted to meet them and now she has. Can we go home? I want to go home.”
“Not without Hannah. She is my responsibility.”
“No, she’s Dad’s responsibility. Let’s go home, call Dad, and then he can come to get her.”
My phone! How had I forgotten? I pluck my phone out of my back pocket but there are no service bars. I give him a quick hug, pushing the phone into his hands.
His cheeks are wet. “Please.”
I leave him, sprinting toward Hannah.
The big alien is nearly on my sister. I get between Hannah and the alien, shouting. The alien rears back and I shove Hannah toward where I last saw Oliver. Her light bobs away.
The alien bats at me. I duck and dodge its claws. More aliens surround me and then—a bite. My shoulder feels like it is on fire. The world spins around me, and I crash to my knees.
When I next awaken, a dull pain throbs in my shoulder, and I lay on a cold floor. The floors and most of the walls are silver.
Slowly I become aware of people huddling in small groups and their conversations. They exchange stories of how the aliens, the scourges, brought them to the spaceship.
The ship rumbles and shakes. In a viewport high up on the ceiling, the world gets smaller and smaller, until it is nothing but a blue dot.
Wherever these scourges are going, they are taking us with them.
The scourges mainly enter our room to leave (or remove) bowls with water or some sort of gruel. I’m hungry, but the mush looks gross. No matter how much my stomach growls, I refuse to eat it.
How long have we been here? Days? I still refuse to eat the gruel. Sometimes, though, I drink the water from the bowls.
The next time the ship shakes and bounces about, scourges storm into the room. One of these scourges corners me and puts a metal collar on my neck. Then he throws me over his shoulder, carrying me through silver-walled corridors. The scourge brings me into what looks like a spartanly furnished apartment and drops me onto the floor.
The scourge’s back is to me while he reaches for a chain hanging near the door.
My eyes skitter around the room, desperate for a way out. At the far end of this room, I spot another door—one that is open.
Toward the open door I run. The moment I enter the other room, the scourge roars. What have I done? Although this room looks like it has a pond and a few clumps of trees, it is a dead end.
I race, teetering around the edge of the water and being careful not to fall. I climb the tallest and sturdiest-looking tree.
The scourge roars, entering the room. The scourge leaps, landing in the water, making a loud splash and waves. He emerges from the water, stomping through the plant growth to my tree, hurtling his body at the tree’s base. The tree shakes and creaks and I cling for dear life to the tree. By some miracle, my tree holds. The scourge howls and looks straight at me. I tremble but I don’t let go.
Eventually, the scourge leaves, the door closing behind him.
My heart pounds in my chest.
The scourge has apparently given up for now. How long can I live in a tree, though?
I awaken to a beeping sound. I glance at where the sound originates—the door is open!
My heart rate skyrockets.
My eyes sweep the rest of the room. I jolt when nestled in a pocket of twisted tree roots at the edge of the pond, I spot a human—a naked man wearing a collar.
No growls or tail thrashing indicative of a lurking scourge are present, but I must remain cautious.
I keep my voice low. “Hello.”
The man stares into the pool. He probably can’t hear me.
There is still no sign of the scourge, so I climb down from the tree and crouch beside the man. I feel awkward sitting next to the naked man.
“How did you get here?” I ask.
He continues gazing into the placid pool.
I wave my hand in front of his face. Still, no response.
I place my hands on either side of the man’s face and turn his head so that we gaze directly at each other. His eyes are glassy. Could he be a robot? We are on a spaceship, so maybe?
The man has curly hair, some of it hanging over his forehead. I brush the hair away from his eyes. His hair feels human-like. I press my thumb against his forehead, rubbing tiny circles into what feels like human skin. Next, I pull the tip of his ear, which flops the way one would expect.
Robot or person? I still don’t feel like I know.
Next, I grab fistfuls of his hair and tug him back and forth. His head movements feel human-like, although this interaction leaves me confused. Wouldn’t most people react?
I pull his hair again and, on his scalp, I notice… What is that? I push his hair away, finding stitches.
“What happened to you,” I whisper.
Still nothing from this man. I tilt his head, inspecting for other injuries.
Suddenly, there is a growl, a massive hand comes at me, and—