The boy stares at the white page in front of him. On it is a single question, “Why have you come to Earth?”
His eyes roll over the words, savouring each letter. There was a time when he and the other kids used to think that writing was hilarious. Talking and singing was another one that cracked them up. It had all seemed so exhausting, so open to misunderstandings. During the long trip to get here, the boy had often found himself wondering how it was that humans had managed to thrive at all.
He repeats the question again under his breath. He considers writing something but he knows that he will never be able to truly answer it, at least not in a way that will make them happy. He closes his eyes and tries to reach out to his little sister but her mind is dormant. He guesses that she is probably asleep. He is glad for that. At least she’s not been forced to answer any stupid questions today.
Bored, he shifts his gaze from the paper and looks at his surroundings, but there is nothing much to see in the white room. He counts the tiles on the floor again. Thirty-two tiles. Same as yesterday, and the day before, and all the other hundreds of days that came before that.
He pushes against his neck strap to take a sneak peek at the two expressionless soldiers standing armed and ready beside him. His eyes move down to their weapons. The sight of the rifles causes the scales on his arms to puff slightly. Like others of his kind, he finds the idea of violence abhorrent but there’s something about these instruments of death that thrill him. He remembers learning all about them on the ship. Words come back to him such as, ‘balance of power’, ‘arms race’, and his personal favourite, ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Humans can be so funny.
A voice crackles over the intercom. “Sam, please answer the question.”
The boy turns away from the soldiers and looks across the room towards the large mirror facing him. It amuses him that they haven’t figured out yet that he can see them there sitting behind it, day in, day out, watching him as he watches them. He likes that it’s always the same two people. He even has nicknames for them. The big one, ‘Moustache Man’ likes to smoke large cigars. If Sam looks closely enough, he can also see the tumour growing inside his brain. It wasn’t that big in the beginning but now it’s quite large. He feels sorry for Moustache Man. Sam knows that he would really rather be home with his wife and new-born daughter than sitting here watching the alien. Sam thinks that he probably should do that instead. After all, he doesn’t have much time left.
Beside him sits ‘Hairy Girl’. Unlike Moustache Man, she really does want to be there. It’s clear to Sam that Hairy Girl and her colleague don’t get along, and although that bothers the man, she is completely oblivious to his feelings. In fact, Sam knows that if she had her way, she would remove all the soldiers and release him, just to see what he would do. He can also see her past; the years of preparation, of staring into the night sky, of hoping that one day, maybe, just maybe, it might all make sense. But while she looks at him with hope, Moustache Man looks at him with fear. For him, the alien they call Sam is the invader. Something to be quarantined and locked up. Something to be destroyed. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot more Moustache Men in the world than Hairy Women.
Sam pulls his gaze away from the little room behind the mirror and catches sight of his own reflection. It takes him a couple of seconds to recognise the person staring back. Eyes flecked with crimson, withered fins, spotty gills…his body is a mess. Sam wonders how much longer he can keep this up. He wonders how much longer they can all keep this up.
He does a quick calculation in his head. It has been nine hundred and twelve days since he and others made this planet their new home. He knows that most of his classmates would say that it has actually been nine hundred and seventeen days, but he prefers to calculate arrival as the time they touched down on the planet, rather than the anxious five days spent hanging around in the lower atmosphere looking for a place to land. Nine hundred and twelve days …he wonders how many more days will need to pass before the others come for them. It shouldn’t be too much longer now.
The crackling of the intercom cuts the silence. Hairy Girl’s voice follows close behind, “Sam, we know you must be very tired but it is important that you try your best with the question, ok? Please tell us why you and the others have come to Earth.”
Sam can see that she’s concerned. He thinks that it’s really touching that she is so worried but in this case, she really doesn’t have to be. One of the soldiers breaks his pose and approaches Sam with a stun gun. Without warning he plunges it into the boy’s chest. Sam does his little drama of pretending to be hurt. They were taught to do this on the ship. Better to let them think they are hurting you than for them to do so for real. Little do they know that electricity actually boosts their telekinetic abilities. If he wanted to, he could break himself free from his bondage right now and kill them all with a flick of his finger. But he doesn’t do that. That’s not what he is here for.
With the show of power now complete, the boy lets out a long sigh and reaches for the pen. He makes his hand tremble as he picks it up. This causes an emotional response from Hairy Girl. Sam doesn’t like it when she does this. Seeing her cry reminds him of his mother’s face as she packed him and his sister onto the ship. The tearful goodbyes, the long heart wrenching hugs, the promises that they would meet again…and then, just like that, his parents were gone. As the ship tilted into position, he couldn’t help himself to one last glance, one last fleeting moment before the speed-drive engines kicked in. Down at the pad, all the parents were waving. She was there too, trying her best to put on a brave face, but he could sense the waves of emotion twisting her insides. He forced himself away from the window and blocked out his mind. All the other kids did the same. Everybody knew that this could be the last time they would ever see each other again. Nobody wanted this as their final memory.
Now he really needs to write something. If for nothing else, than to get his mind out of the past. As the oldest child, he can’t risk his thoughts upsetting the others. He needs to be responsible.
He looks at the question again and is just about to write something when he notices a strange red glow illuminating the steel table. His eyes widen. Could it be? He checks his reflection. Sure enough, his eyes are now completely crimson, his scales a deep red. He opens his mind and senses the reactions from the other kids on the base. It’s not just him, they are changing too. He can feel their excitement. Everybody knows what this means – their parents are finally coming!
There’s no point in pretending anymore. The boy breaks free from his chair and, with a slight move of his hand, the heavy table rips from the ground and smashes against the two soldiers knocking them out. Sirens ring out across the base. Emergency measures are coming online. But it’s too late now.
He blinks at the glass, shattering it into a thousand pieces. Huddled under their desks, Moustache Man and Hairy Girl stare at him for a few seconds before panic overtakes them and they run, scrambling over each other in order to get out. They are afraid of him now. Maybe that’s just as well, he thinks. There wasn’t much more to be learnt from them anyway. All in all, humans have proven to be a huge disappointment.
He notices the sheet of paper lying at his feet. He picks it up and reads the question for the very last time, “Why have you come to Earth?”
He can’t help but wonder how his parents will answer this.
Story by Shane O’Halloran. Originally published by Asymmetry, June 3, 2019.