It was few hours before sunset and the temperature seemed permanently stuck at a hundred and eleven, the mountains on either side of the desolate valley shimmering in the heat, when I saw it. It might have been a soap bubble hanging low in the sky, and it was impossible to tell just how far away it was, except that I knew perfectly well there wouldn't be any soap bubbles hovering in midair in a remote part of the Mojave Desert with the temperature in the hundreds, so whatever it was it had to be a long ways away.
I blinked a few times, thinking it might be one of those "floaters" you get in your eye when you're tired and have been out in the blazing sun for too long, but it didn't go away. Instead, it was definitely getting bigger. In fact, I suddenly realized, it was coming right at me--a soap bubble from hell.
For a moment I had visions of my car, my campsite, and myself obliterated by a crashing jetliner. Is this what a jetliner looks like head on? I wondered. But jetliners have wings, and this was still just an expanding round soap bubble. And then it grew very fast and seconds later whizzed overhead forty or fifty feet above me, and as I spun my head to watch (picking myself up off my ground pad in the process) I saw it hit the desert floor with a tremendous bang, raising a huge cloud of dust, then bounce into the air and continue skidding and bouncing along in a perfectly straight line for a good half mile before finally sliding to a stop on the rocky ground. For a long time the distant mountains echoed back the near-deafening impacts, like a series of high explosive detonations.
For one brief instant I'd glimpsed something transparent and cylindrical. I wasn't sure of its size, but I was certain it wasn't anywhere near the dimensions of a jetliner. I'd also seen something inside that wasn't glass, and suddenly realized that I was going to be the first person at a crash site. Fighting a freshly growing knot in my stomach I frantically pawed through my stuff for a first aid kit and set off in a run towards the thing, now settled to a stop amid a slowly dissipating cloud of dust.
Amazingly, it hadn't hit anything except for a few boulders along the way. They'd been literally pulverized into dust, with only a few larger fragments remaining. Before long I'd reached a nicely smoothed furrow in the ground, with plenty of rocky debris around but nothing I could identify as pieces of whatever it was that had made such a remarkable landing.
(So what was I doing camping out in the Mojave Desert in June? I just happen to like it there, thank you. I won't tell you where I was; after all, the reason it was one of my favorite camping spots was because of its almost total isolation. I suppose girls in high school aren't supposed to go camping out in the desert by themselves, but I'd been doing it for almost a year now and no one had ever bothered me. So there.)
By the time I reached the thing the dust had pretty much settled, revealing what looked for all the world like a huge glass bullet about the size of a large recreational vehicle. Dust was still drifting down from the top, but the sides were so smooth that it just slid off, revealing to my horrified gaze what was clearly the figure of a man slumped forward in a seat near the pointed end, behind what looked like a control console. Smoke was starting to fill the interior, boiling out from under a horizontal panel that ran the length of the cylinder and made up its floor. Frantically I looked for a doorway, but couldn't find so much as an outline of one anywhere on the perfectly smooth surface. The flat rear of the thing was apparently made of metal, but there I also saw no sign of a hatch.
Now desperate, I ran back to the front of the craft and shouted as loudly as I could, but got no response. Seeing a large heavy rock at hand that had escaped demolition, I lifted it with difficulty and heaved it with all my strength at the glass. To my dismay, the rock shattered loudly like so much plaster, leaving not so much as a scratch on the polished surface.
The occupant, however, suddenly jerked upright, broke into a coughing fit, and then seemed to shout something, although I couldn't hear anything through the thick glass. A circular portal appeared in the smooth wall between us, as if the glass were simply melting away from the opening, and a moment later he emerged amid a boiling cloud of evil-looking smoke, coughing violently. He staggered out of the craft down a ramp of some kind that had also appeared out of nowhere, and collapsed onto his knees on the ground.
I ran over to him, first aid kit in hand. "Are you all right?" I croaked, my heart pounding furiously. "Is anyone else in there?"
He looked up at me, and I saw to my amazement that he was only a boy, about my own age, maybe sixteen or a little older. He said something in a language I didn't recognize, interspersed with more hacking coughs.
"Sorry," I said as reassuringly as I could. "I don't know your language. Do you speak English? Sprechen sie Deutsch? Parlez vous français?"
"I'm okay," he wheezed, still coughing the smoke out of his lungs. Suddenly he looked at me in evident horror. "Oh, no. You saw me land, didn't you?"
"Uh-huh," I confirmed. "At least if you call that a landing. Is this thing secret or something?" In response he shakily tried to stand, then sat back down on the barren ground and stared disconsolately at the strange craft. Smoke was still drifting out of the open doorway.
"Oh, jeez," he moaned. "Kiri's gonna kill me for this. Nobody's supposed to see me land here." He had an odd accent that I couldn't quite pin down.
"Just where are you from, anyway?" I asked. "I've never even heard of a plane like this, much less with doorways that melt open." For the first time I looked him up and down. He seemed reasonably human, and the dark blue sleeveless shirt was ordinary enough, but the cutoff jeans didn't look quite right. And his boots were nothing like cowboy boots; they came up about two thirds of the way to his knees and appeared to be made of some kind of soft leather, except that they were dark blue.
I crossed my arms across my chest and assumed what I hoped was an intimidating expression (not easy to do when you're only five feet three). "Come on, talk. I can keep a secret, if that's what you're worried about. Where is this thing from?" Wordlessly he pointed a finger straight up. "What, from outer space?" I protested. "Give me a break!"
A look of relief suffused his face. "You mean you don't believe me? That's great!" I decided that either this kid was more than a little crazy or I was having a very strange dream. He was cute, though, with one of those rare builds that manages to look strong and graceful at the same time. In addition to a pair of warm almond-brown eyes, he sported a shaggy shock of straight black hair, especially long in the back, where it was tied into a bushy ponytail that reminded me of nothing quite so much as a real horse's tail.
"Aren't you kind of young to be piloting a space ship around the solar system?" I said skeptically. His face fell; I guess he thought I believed him after all.
"Actually, it's a starship," he corrected me.
"No, it's Kiri's. She's Empress of Deshtiris," he added helpfully. "Boy am I ever gonna get it," he mumbled again to himself.
I was almost starting to believe him, against my better judgment. "Listen," I said. "Are you sure you're all right? That was quite a landing. You didn't break anything, did you? Or hit your head?" I added hopefully. He shook his head.
"I'm fine," he said sadly. "At least until I get home."
By now curiosity had hopelessly gotten the better of me. "It does seem like you're in a bit of trouble," I agreed. "Tell you what. Are you hungry? My campsite's about a half-mile back. Maybe you'd like something to eat?"
His expression brightened visibly at that. "I was just getting ready to have breakfast when I found I had a problem. I could use a bite if you've got something." Breakfast? I wondered. At six in the evening?
He stood up shakily and turned back to the thing behind him. Smoke was no longer coming out. "Come on," he said. "You might as well get a look." I followed him up the ramp and into the strange craft and peered around curiously as he poked at some of the now darkened controls. The interior was almost barren of furnishings except for four well-padded chairs near the front, two on either side of the central walkway I'd seen earlier. At the back of the craft was what looked like a solid steel wall, with a door in the center of it.
But there hadn't been any door visible from outside. Even as I puzzled over the contradiction the boy politely pushed past me and tried the door's handle without success. He pressed a few buttons on a small panel to the right of the door and tried the handle again, with no more luck than before.
"Well, everything's dead," he sighed, turning back to me. "Looks like I'm stuck here all right." He motioned towards the opening we'd entered through, and reluctantly I headed back to the front of the ship. Along the way I took one more look at the control console. It was remarkably featureless, with only three or four brightly colored buttons and a five-by-five keypad, the keycaps labeled with unfamiliar symbols. There was also a considerable expanse of blank panel that I guessed was a computer readout when things were functioning.
I could feel the greenhouse heat building even during the brief minutes we'd spent in the craft, and in spite of being unusually well-acclimated to the desert I was starting to feel sweat trickling down my back. I was truly grateful to find a mild evening breeze springing up when we stepped back out of the craft onto the ramp.
"I'll have to look at the power compartment when it's cooler," he said despondently. "Futaba: close portal." The ramp retracted and the opening in the side shrank to nothing again, leaving the smooth surface as featureless as before. It suddenly hit me that there didn't seem to be a scratch anywhere on it, in spite of its having bounced along several thousand feet of rocky desert landscape.
"If there's no power, how can you open and close that door-thingy?" I asked suspiciously.
"It's a fail-safe precaution. It uses a separate power source independent from the rest of the ship. Otherwise the Futaba could turn into a high-tech coffin in a hurry if the air regeneration failed." I nodded, not entirely pacified. "Now how about that bite to eat?" he added, somewhat more cheerfully this time. He has a nice smile, I decided as we trudged back to my car.
"So what's your name?" I asked. "Mine's Haley. Like the comet, but with only one 'L'. My friends call me Hal, though." I wasn't about to tell him that my full name was Brianna Haley Larkin, the first name courtesy of my father, who'd thought it sounded "upscale" at the time. My mother wanted to name me Halley in anticipation of the comet's much anticipated visit the following year, and he finally agreed to compromise, provided she changed Halley to Haley (which is a perfectly respectable Irish name). Much to his disgust, I've been known as Haley ever since elementary school.
"I'm Rann," my unexpected dinner guest reciprocated. "Nice to meet you. I really appreciate your waking me up. I don't know how much of that smoke I'd have inhaled before the fire extinguished itself."
"Are you sure you're okay?" I asked again. "All that stuff you breathed looked pretty nasty." I'd heard of people appearing to be fine after a fire and then dying the next day of smoke inhalation.
"It's harmless, really," he reassured me. "At least once I coughed it all out." He looked around. There was nothing to see in any direction except the desert and the surrounding mountains. "So are you prospecting or surveying?" he asked.
I giggled. "You've got to be kidding. I'm still in high school. I just like it out here."
"High school? Aren't you kind of old to still be in high school?"
"Hey," I said indignantly. "I'm only sixteen. Just how old did you think I was?"
"Oh," he said, reddening. "I forgot. I thought you were about my age."
"Forgot what?" I demanded. "And how old are you, anyway?"
For a moment he seemed to be debating just how much he should spill. "Oh, well," he finally sighed. "You've already seen me land, and the ship, and everything. I guess it doesn't really matter how much I tell you. You're either going to keep a secret, like you said, or you're not."
"Well I am," I insisted. "Provided you don't turn out to be a pervert or something." I'd noticed that the sun was getting a lot lower, and he didn't seem to have anywhere to go, so I was starting to wonder just a little if I was going to be spending the night with some kind of psycho sharing my campsite.
The horrified look on his face was at least partially reassuring. Besides, I reflected, I had a hatchet hidden next to my sleeping bag. "You were going to tell me what you forgot," I reminded him. "About my age."
"Oh," he said apologetically. "Well, we age more slowly than you do. I assumed you'd be about twenty."
"Is that how old you are?"
"Yeah, right," I grumbled skeptically as we reached my campsite. We were finally in the shade, the sun having slipped behind the mountains to the west. By now I realized I was hooked; I was going to hear the whole story whatever it took. It's a good thing I'm not a cat, people tell me, or I'd be dead by now. Several times over.
"You've got a choice of fried Spam, corned beef hash, or a deviled ham sandwich," I offered as I lit my cooking stove. He looked embarrassed. "Er, those are all meat, aren't they?"
"Are you a vegetarian or something like that? I've got some trail mix and fruit if you'd rather."
"That would be great," he agreed with obvious relief.
"So is this a religious or a dietary thing?" I asked as I sliced up an apple. I'd turned off the stove, not wanting to make him uncomfortable.
He thought about it, then said, "Do you have any pets?"
"I used to have a cat," I said. "Why?"
"Well, I guess it would be sort of like my offering you a catburger. We consider all animal life to be sentient." I stared at him.
"It's okay, really," he said in embarrassment. "I know your culture is different and everything. I just couldn't eat it myself, that's all." By now I was expecting to hear a speech about the "prime directive" at any moment. This guy is really living in a fantasy world, I thought, then I remembered the ship.
"All right," I sighed, "suppose you start at the beginning. Like where are you from, and who is Kiri, and why did you land that giant glass salt shaker in the middle of my desert?"
So for the next two hours, as the sun sank below the mountains, he told me. And my life has never been the same since.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|