“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” ― Neil Armstrong
It was the best day of Haley Meadows’s young life. Her sixteenth birthday party stood out as one of those bashes everyone would talk about when school started up again. The presents were opened, cake eaten, and the day firmly behind them. Although the clock on the wall glowed a green 3:00 a.m., Haley searched in vain for sleep. Thoughts of boys, school, cars, college, and her future in general, drove ceaseless and dizzying circles through her mind. Dressed in pajamas, she leaned back in the lawn chair on the outdoor patio and gazed in awe at the Texas sky. Stars twinkled in what felt like the limitless expanse of space.
The warm breeze wind embraced her as if it too wished her well on this epic night. The stars beckoned as Haley watched in amazement at the sheer enormity of it all. Friends she’d invited for a sleepover snoozed in the living room behind her. They didn’t share her innate fascination with the night sky and all its wonder. When she was a small girl, her friends played with dolls and hosted tea parties for their stuffed animals and she built spaceships and models of planets. In elementary school,they were assigned a diorama project of the solar system. Her parents were called to the school on the date it was due. She had turned in her diorama of a solar system no one had ever heard of.
Haley wasn’t tired yet. She pulled the little lever on the lounge chair and lay back all the way, content to give those far-off stars their chance to sing her to sleep. In the distance, the blinking lights of a jet gave away a commercial airliner on final approach to Houston airport. A small blinking light overhead suggested maybe a satellite lurked above her. A shooting star crossed her field of vision and dissipated as quickly as it appeared.
Just as her eyes felt heavy, another sensation settled upon her. A deep-throated humming noise rose up, seemingly from the ground, surrounding her. Starting as only a deep grumble, it grew louder and louder until the water on the surface of their outdoor pool vibrated in response. It reminded Haley of the bass coming from her sister’s boyfriend’s car.
Haley’s breath caught in her throat as an enormous gray disk swooped low over their house. A partial ring of light painted a bright blue hue on the roof of the house, surface of the pool, and Haley’s feet dangling off the end of the lawn chair before disappearing. The trees down the hill from the house shook in response to the massive thing moving across the night sky. Haley, now fully awake, let out a little yelp. She turned toward her friends to see if anyone had seen or could make sense of the sudden strange occurrence. If those slumbering faces knew anything, they weren’t admitting it.
This was too far outside of the flight path of the airport. She knew the flight pattern, and there was no way a plane flew that low since it would be in considerable danger from the buildings in the city below the hill their house sat on. Certainly, a loud explosion should have rocked the patio of their home. Estimating the size of the craft, she figured it had to be at least one hundred feet across. Far too large to be an airliner.
Quickly slipping on her shoes, she briefly thought about changing out of her pajamas but didn’t want to take the time. Haley ran down the small footpath leading toward and through the small stand of trees the flying disk disappeared behind. Their house was remote, surrounded only by scrub brush and small trees, so no other home bore witness to this strange event. Down the hill, only the municipal baseball fields sat in relative proximity to their house.
Running as fast as her legs would carry her, she didn’t take long to catch up to a scene that forever changed her view of the world around her. Haley crested the rise of a hill overlooking the ball fields and the object which shook the house rested on the ground. Under normal circumstances, Haley could be easily convinced she was watching a science-fiction movie with her father.
She shook her head and pinched her arm to eliminate the possibility a dream somehow influenced reality. The craft, slightly oblong, lit up the baseball diamond with powerful landing lights. The side facing Haley had a series of colored lights which blinked on and off with some unknown intention. The whole craft rested on four huge landing pads extending from under the fuselage. The entire ship’s surface was blue-gray metal and made no sound at all.
Next to the craft, along the first base line, three men stood stoically near a large limousine. They remained passively watching as if the appearance of the craft were so commonplace it barely registered as a footnote on the day’s events.
Haley remained motionless as a small platform extended, tongue-like, from the craft. At first, it moved slowly, parallel to the ground, before canting downward and contacting the ground, sending up wisps of dirt from just in front of the pitcher’s mound. Two men, looking very human, walked out with small rolling luggage. It struck Haley how similar the luggage looked to the suitcase she normally packed when they were driving to Corpus Christi to spend the weekend at her grandparents’ house. But these guys were not visiting from Corpus Christi or even Texas, for that matter.
Haley stood and suddenly aware her mouth was agape, she forced it closed. In her head, a little voice screamed there was no way this could be happening. In stark contrast, another part of her head screamed that she was witnessing something truly amazing here.
“Hey, what are you doing out here? You shouldn’t be here this time of the morning, young lady!” a man’s gruff voice barked out from behind Haley. He grabbed her by the arm and spun her around to face him.
The man, clearly a soldier, wore green military fatigues with US Army over one pocket and the name Smith over another. He carried a holstered pistol and club. On his arm, a black band read MILITARY POLICE. All Haley could think about was the fact that she was dressed in only her tennis shoes and pajamas.
“Oh crap, I was just, uhm—” Haley’s normally lithe mind stiffened in the face of the authority figure. Stuttering to come up with the right words to say, she searched for just the right excuse to give him. Overriding all sense of decorum and fear the man tried to put into her, Haley only had one question that seemed to hijack all other thoughts. “Oh, to hell with it! Before you shoot me, just tell me what that thing is?”
Looking still perturbed at finding the voyeur, and a little amused at her reaction, the man softened. “Young lady, I think you’d better come with me.” He was not really threatening but made it clear that saying no wasn’t really an option. They walked to a green military truck parked slightly down from where he found her.
As they traveled down the dusty desert road, the ship stretched out before Haley, only deepening her thirst for answers. Still terrified at what the military planned to do with her, a myriad of excuses circled around her head to try to explain what she was doing there. The last thing in the world she wanted to do was call her parents from a military jail and try to explain why she ran off in her pajamas and spied on a military exercise at three in the morning. Worse yet, the idea of torture and perhaps being made to sign a confession crossed her mind. She remembered reading they did things like that. Afterward, her parents would be told she had been sent to a special boarding school and would be home sometime around the age of fifty.
The man in the uniform skidded the truck to a halt on a gravel parking lot leading to the baseball field. Ordering her to stay put, he exited the vehicle. Approaching another man, the soldier who had driven her down the hill came to attention and saluted. After a brief exchange, the second man nodded and then rendered another salute before returning to the limousine and climbing inside.
The soldier returned to the truck and opened the door, motioning her to step out. “Come with me, little lady.”
“Oh God, I’m not seven. Don’t call me little lady. My name is Haley.” Not seeing her family was frightening enough even if it was for seeing an alien spacecraft or a new top-secret military project, but she sure as hell wouldn’t be treated like a child.
Stepping out of the truck, she was overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of it all. Seeing the ship through the window really didn’t do it justice. The sight of it up close was too much to process. The platform disappeared back into the ship with a mechanical whir.
“Come with me, please, little—Haley.” The soldier grabbed her by the arm and led her toward the ship and the waiting limousine. Again, she got the impression he would easily put her in handcuffs the moment she decided to be uncooperative. At the waiting limousine, parked about fifteen feet from where the platform had been earlier, one of the car doors automatically opened. Inside, a man waited with a peculiar smile.
“Here is the girl, Sir. Her name is Haley,” the soldier said.
“Excellent. Sergeant, that will be all. Young lady, please get into the car.”
Not really knowing what else to do, she moved toward the vehicle as instructed. Placing one foot inside the car, she turned her head just in time to watch the spaceship disappear. “Holy crap!”
“Holy crap indeed,” the man said, laughing. Sliding into the seat, she looked across the compartment to see a man in a uniform sitting quietly. To her, he looked like a younger Morgan Freeman. “I’m still amazed every time they do that. I suppose holy crap is as good an expression as anything else.”
“Before you do anything to me, I have to know something,” Haley said.
“Oh yeah, what’s that?” he asked with a smile.
“How does that thing not crash into the ground when it lands? I mean, Earth’s gravity should take something that large and smash it against the rocks and turn it into spaceship soup.”
“Elegantly, I believe, is the word best suited to answer your question.”
“Yes, how does it land so elegantly? And then the whole platform thingy came out of the bottom and those guys stepped out. It was crazy. And you guys with your uniforms and guns. I mean, what’s next? Is Will Smith going to jump out and flash something in my eyes and tell me to study math harder and wait to have sex until I am married?”
“Will is busy today, you get me.”
“So, you are going to flash my eyes?” Haley was now talking a mile a minute. “I mean, crazy, right? I knew you people existed, I just knew it. It only makes sense, there is limitless space out there, and it sounds ridiculous if you say we are the only planet in all this space that has people on it. Oh my God, just let me drink it in for a few more seconds before you kill me, or flash me, or whatever. This is totally, like, off the charts, amazing! I just can’t believe it. Aliens are real, and they look like us!”
“Well, not really. Those are human suits actually.” The man sat back in his chair with a broad toothy grin, seemingly amused by the girl’s reaction to everything she was seeing.
“Wait, they wear those? Holy crap, this gets better and better. Okay, you can flash me now. I’m ready, but holy crap!”
“We don’t really flash people. We could, but the testing of the technology was a little … embarrassing.”
“Embarrassing, do you mean people died during testing? Did they like explode into a gooey mess all over the laboratory? I’ll bet it was gross.” Haley sounded very serious.
“No, but our testers did cluck like chickens for a few weeks. Turns out messing with the human mind is more complicated than you’d think. Happy Birthday, by the way.”
“Thank you, but if you’re not going to flashy-thingy me, then what are you going to do? I mean, this is kind of big to just tell me it is swamp gas or a movie set. How did you know it was my birthday?”
“There is a facial recognition program we run. It brought up your birthday. And, to answer your question, we just kill you. No one believes swamp gas anymore.”
There was an awkward moment of silence. Haley’s face turned beet red, and her eyes flew open wide in terror. Her mouth fell open as if to say something but lacked air to give life to the words.
“Oh my, I’m just kidding. Don’t worry, we don’t kill anyone.”
Visibly relieved, Haley relaxed. “You had me there for a second. Don’t do that to me.” Haley still wasn’t completely sure he was kidding about killing her. It seemed to make sense that if someone observed alien technology they were never meant to see they needed to be silenced.
As if he could read the concerns still on her face he said, “Okay, I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have told you we would kill you. Let me restart this process. I am Lieutenant General Profitt. And I assure you the only thing I am killing today is a brewski after I’m done talking to you. It’s been kind of a long night.”
Haley still wasn’t completely convinced, but for the moment she thought it best to just play along. “Fair enough, my name is Haley Meadows. And if you aren’t going to kill me, what are you going to do with me?”
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Haley. And, to answer your question, that depends completely on you. Let me ask you this, what do you think you saw there, just now?”
“I think I watched the arrival of an alien spacecraft. Judging by the size I would guess it is a transport craft. Too big to be a fighter. That is, if I learned anything from watching Star Wars.”
“Bravo, young lady. I’m glad I met you today. There are a ton of people out there that would never have gotten past just muttering incoherently. But you thought about what you saw, eliminated the improbable, and made an assessment. Have you ever heard of Occam’s Razor? It is a theory that the most logical hypothesis is the one with the least amount of assumptions, no matter how improbable that hypothesis may seem. You took it one step further and thought about the type of spacecraft. Very good! So, who do you think those men were that you saw walk away from the craft?”
“That’s another thing,” Haley said. “Only three of them got off. A military craft likely would need more people. So, I’d have to guess they are the crew for what is basically a galactic trucking company?”
“You win extra style points. Well done, as it turns out you are right at every turn. That was no military vehicle, as you say. That is a Tal-Severn transport craft. It’s built to be a mid-level freighter. Supposed to be in transit for no longer than a week, but they are breaking up their trip with a quick stopover here.”
“And those people, the Tal-Sevens, they are our allies?”
“Tal-Severns, and no, they are most certainly not our allies. As a matter of fact, they wanted to destroy Earth four years ago. But, as it turns out, they need a new transport hub. So, today is an olive branch. They were in trouble and needed help. We offered, and they reluctantly accepted.”
“So, you said it was up to me what happens next?”
General Profitt opened a small refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of water and handed her one. “Yes, Haley, it most certainly is. You can, if you like, sign a simple piece of paper and walk away from all of this. With the promise, of course, that you never tell a single soul what happened here today. If you do tell anyone, you can expect to spend significant time in a federal prison. Agree to keep quiet, and you can simply go back to your life. I’ll even give you a ride home and explain everything to your parents if they are up. But there is another choice.
“You see, Haley, this is only half of my job. The other part is looking for talent. I’m not interested in hiring people who question everything they see and wonder if it’s real. Interesting fact, we only take about thirty percent of people who apply to our program, and only about half of those make it all the way through training. The rest of our staff we find as we go along. People that react a certain way to circumstances they are put in.”
“Circumstances like I found myself in tonight?” Haley interrupted.
“Indeed. So, the second option is this. You sign the same piece of paper, promising you will never tell another soul what you see here or will see in the future, or you will go to jail. Then you meet with our human resources department next week and start working for me as an intern. Of course, you would have to finish school, and there are specialized courses we would have you take, but I see greatness in you, Haley Meadows. I can’t explain it, but I am positive you’d be a good fit.”
Haley sat speechless. Only an hour ago, she gazed up in wonder at the night sky. And now she sat in the back of a limousine, dressed in pajamas, with a stranger calling himself a lieutenant general. Most girls her age were thrilled with babysitting and working part-time at a fast food joint. But he was offering her a government job working with aliens.
“I’ll have to think about it,” Haley said.
“I would hope so. This isn’t just a job. You don’t just flip burgers and drop orders of fries. You’re going to be interacting with the galaxies most influential and interesting creatures. Some of whom I can hardly believe are real, and I have been working in the program for a long time. I’d hope you would at least sleep on it. Let’s have you sign that nondisclosure agreement, and I’ll take you home.”
A moment of panic gripped Haley. “But, what will I tell my parents?”
“Tell your parents only that you were offered an internship, through school, and you were considering it. I can tell them everything they need to know when I meet with them. I can’t hire a sixteen-year-old without a parent’s consent.” He handed her a card. It simply said LTG Profitt and provided a phone number. “Make up your mind and call that number either way. Give my assistant your name, and she will forward your call. And Haley, there is no harm in saying no. However, the entire galaxy awaits you if you say yes.”
Fifteen minutes later, Haley stepped out of the limousine in front of her house. Thankfully, the lights inside remained off and no one seemed the wiser. Creeping up the steps onto the back patio, she took off her shoes on the welcome mat. For a few moments,she was able to convince herself the entire thing had been nothing more than a dream. Until the sharp edge of the business card dug into her hand. Putting it in her pocket, Haley collapsed into the lounge chair again and looked at the stars. They seemed different. Earth felt a lot smaller, and the stars seemed much closer.