Simon flinched as the roar and snap of igniting solid rocket boosters boomed across Cape Canaveral. Alone behind a line of tall bleachers, the nine-year-old glanced at the Space Shuttle as it soared skyward, momentarily diverted from the mysterious wave of swaying reeds in a nearby marsh.
“T plus thirty, passing ten thousand feet,” a voice boomed from big speakers in front of the people in the bleachers: his mother, uncle, and hundreds of strangers—important people, he’d been told. Simon watched for a moment, then jogged on toward the fascinating swamp.
Something large was moving in the marsh. As he ran closer, he could see a line of tall cattail stalks waving, probably pushed aside by some giant water creature swimming past. Alligators! Simon dashed to the water’s edge, pulled off his shoes and socks, and stepped without hesitation into the black water. Sinking knee deep into muck, he crept between sharp blades of saw grass into the bog.
* * *
“Endeavor, you’re GO at throttle-up,” NASA’s flight controller announced, his words amplified over the huge speakers before the VIP stands. Robert cringed.
“Roger. GO at throttle-up,” the Shuttle commander replied.
Dr. Robert Kanewski, chief scientist for the robotic Mars Rover mission, held his breath as he watched the early morning launch. This was the moment when, twenty-six years earlier, Mission Commander Dick Scobee spoke Challenger’s last words. Robert envisioned the pilot advancing the engines to maximum thrust. The deafening rumble and crackle of solid rocket boosters shook Robert’s insides, but Endeavor’s O-rings held one last time. Robert sighed with relief, reveling in the awesome power of the launch. Endeavor was on her way, carrying a crew of seven, including three astronauts headed to a new commercial space station and then on to Mars. Their mission: to confirm what his own robotic Rover had discovered only days earlier—irrefutable evidence of intelligent alien life on the Red Planet.
The winged spaceship arced majestically to the northeast, her long white plume like a massive stack of cotton balls reaching up to the sun.
“SRBs separating at this time,” the voice of NASA announced over the speaker.
Moments later, Robert saw the reusable boosters split off to either side of the vehicle, their fall to the ocean retarded by parachutes. There would be no need to recover these boosters; Endeavor was the last of her kind. This was the Shuttle program’s final mission.
* * *
Simon waded up to his waist in smelly water, heading toward the splashes and rustles in the reeds just ahead. He fondled a hank of bailing twine in his submerged pocket, brought all the way from the farm in Minnesota for this special day. He pulled it free, wrapping the cord around his hand just as his hero would. Now he waited, heart pounding, hoping the line was long enough. Favorite episodes of Crocodile Hunter raced through his head. No one would make fun of him again, not after today.
Moments later, the tall cattails parted ahead of him. Simon caught sight of the creature—and screamed.
* * *
Robert’s pulse raced for minutes after the eye-watering launch of the first manned mission to Mars. He imagined the crew—including three people he’d helped train—heading to the interplanetary craft, Epsilon, a brilliant white multicylinder spacecraft docked to a new commercial space station in equatorial orbit. For the next 470 days, Epsilon would be the home of three modern Magellans headed across the solar system to investigate evidence of alien life. His own robotic exploration of Mars, history-making though it was, seemed pale in comparison to this magnificent venture.
“Robert? Have you seen Simon?” asked a freckled woman to his left, interrupting his daydream. Barbara, his sister. “He was playing under the stands a minute ago . . .”
Robert shook his head, frustrated that she’d broken his concentration. She stood and pushed past him, hurrying up the bleachers against the flow of the departing crowd. He turned to watch her scan the sea of people. The last time he’d seen his nephew was before the launch, at least fifteen minutes ago.
“Are you sure, Barbara? I mean, that it was just a minute ago?” he asked, huffing to the top of the aluminum stands to join her.
“Simon!” she yelled.
Robert’s annoyance grew; his wandering nephew was nowhere to be seen. Then he spotted two shoes on the grass near a large wetlands area, about thirty meters away. In a flash, Robert forgot all the previous lost-child episodes, his only thought of Simon—of his vivid imagination and his passion for reptiles. He dashed down the stands, yelling over his shoulder. “The marsh!”
Behind him he could hear Barbara’s feet pounding down the metal stairs in frantic pursuit.
* * *
The creature pushed through a clump of cattails into the open. It was a towering silver spider-like thing, with eight gleaming jointed legs that emerged from an egg-shaped body and descended into the moss-green waters. Some manner of head rose from the front of the egg, like a football on the end of a silver snakelike hose. The head, barely hidden by the tall cattails, had one large eye and no mouth that Simon could see. The head descended to face him.
Simon couldn’t move, his legs frozen in sucking black goo. His hands, shoulders, and knees shook out of control. A second scream lodged in his throat.
A moment later, other reeds parted to the right and left of the metal spider. There were three of them. He squeezed the braided twine in his right hand with all the force he could muster. He refused to run.
Simon gritted his teeth, pushed sweaty hair off his forehead, and bent to grab his right knee, his arm immersed to the shoulder. He pulled hard and freed his foot but lost his balance and fell face first into slime. Mom’s gonna be mad, he thought. He regained his balance and moved within reach of the creature’s closest leg, his heart pounding in his ears.
He leaned left and right, trying to see around the massive silver thing. Maybe it is a spider from space, he thought, remembering the stunning images of two spiders pursuing the American rover on Mars only a few days before. Or maybe there’s an alien inside a ship that looks like a spider. Either way, his excitement and curiosity barely overcame his burning desire to turn and run.
The head thing followed his every movement, then looked to the left and right at the other silver spiders. Simon heard a noise, like a high-pitched cry in the distance, but he couldn’t make it out. The other creatures heard it too, and all three heads elevated to the top of the cattail stalks, looking to his right.
Simon shook so hard that he could barely breathe. He forced himself to calm down, then extended his left arm, palm out. He reached up to touch what looked like a jointed aluminum bamboo pole, one of eight, that extended in a gentle arc from the creature’s body. The leg was cool. As he touched it, Simon could feel the silver thing hum.
The spider didn’t seem to like his touch; it retreated beyond his grasp, four long legs on each side pulling free of the muck in quick succession with a shlop sound. Simon waded forward, let one end of the cord fall loose in the water, and cinched it to the closest leg.
This is no alligator . . . and even if it was, ’gators only eat when they’re hungry, he remembered. Memories of his Australian hero whipping ropes about snapping reptile jaws emboldened him as Simon tightened his first knot.
* * *
Robert reached the marsh first. He raced past a neat pile of shoes and socks and stumbled headlong into the slimy bayou. “Simon!” he yelled for the third time. “Answer me!” Stinging blades ripped at his bare arms as he pushed through clumps of saw grass, eyes darting as he searched for the boy.
“Over here!” he heard from somewhere to his right. Simon’s voice!
“Simon!” Robert screamed again, stumbling through a thick mound of weeds. His shoes were sucked off his feet in the black ooze as he pushed through dense water lilies in the direction of the boy’s voice. He could hear Barbara hit the water about ten meters behind him.
“Uncle Robert!” he heard, just ahead of him. “I’ve got one! Come see!”
Robert stood aghast, unsteady in the muck five meters from his tiny nephew, gasping for air, sweat sheeting off his face. Simon slogged slowly toward him, a short hank of braided twine cinched around the mud-drenched leg of a three-meter-tall silver tarantula that followed the boy’s lead. Behind it, another two moved through the muck, their jointed silver legs making a shlop-shlop-shlop sound as twenty-four appendages slid in and out of the marsh mud. The three moved forward single file at the speed of Simon’s proud progress through the green-and-black water.
Robert fought to get a full breath. The closer they came, the more his chest constricted. Barbara stumbled into him from behind, pressing through the last clump of weeds and nearly bowling him over. She fell face first into the green water. Robert helped his sister to her feet as she spat mud and gasped at the sight of her son with his bizarre captives.
“Simon!” Robert commanded, “Stop now. Let them go.”
Barbara whimpered behind him. He gripped her hand hard to hold her back.
“I caught some Martians!” Simon said with a huge grin as he led the ominous trio.
“Simon!” Barbara screamed and pulled harder at Robert, as though pleading with him to let her go to her son. He relented, and the two struggled to free their feet of the mud, then moved toward the boy.
One silent minute later, Barbara stooped in slime-covered water, sinking to her knees at the base of the lead spider to take her son in her arms. He handed the twine lasso proudly to his uncle and hugged his mom.
Robert looked up at the stationary spiders ahead of him, their heads moving about crazily on long slender necks. One peered above the weeds in the direction of the bleachers, and another looked back along their line of advance. The lead creature lowered its head to confront him, one unblinking eye the only feature on its “face.”
Robert pulled Barbara up from the dank water. “Move back,” he said, motioning toward the shore behind them. She nodded in silence. Mother and son slogged a retreat to safety.
Robert waited. He could hear Barbara pulling Simon through the swamp, thrashing their way through tall reeds. “Uncle Robert!” Simon called. But Robert was alone now. He’d lived this moment remotely two weeks ago with Rover, his marvelous robot one hundred and fifty million kilometers from Earth. Rover had been cornered on Mars by two of these creatures; Robert faced three.
“Run!” Barbara urged from a distance.
Run? Not a chance. He stood still, grasping an insane hope that these creatures would behave like those on Mars. Peacefully.
He didn’t have to wait long. “Claws!” Simon yelled from somewhere behind half a minute later. A pair of snapping pliers-like grapples on long appendages emerged from the belly of the lead alien, just as Robert and his colleagues had witnessed two weeks before in startling images from Mars.
Once fully extended, the claws coiled upward to the underside of the craft and reached inside the muddy pod—just like on Mars—and pulled an iridescent golden orb from its belly. It reached both flexible arms across the water and presented the polished sphere without hesitation. Robert extended his own arms, his pulse pounding in his ears. The alien seemed to be waiting on Robert’s next move. Again, just like on Mars.
He took one step forward, Barbara’s soft cries the only other sound in the wetlands. His hands trembled, poised at the edge but not touching the shiny grapefruit-sized offering. This was an exact duplicate of the Martian greeting nearly every human being in the modern world had seen at least once—many a hundred times—on the television in the past fifteen days.
A sudden pain stabbed his chest. What’s happening? He ignored the sensation, his whole will focused on the historic importance of this moment.
Swallowing his fears, Robert clasped the sides of the offering. As soon as he grasped it, the orb transformed to a brilliant blue, a hue so intense that he turned his head to shield his eyes. The alien released its grip, backing away. Slowly, with the gift safe in Robert’s hands, the searing blue light paled to a gentle azure glow.
The spiders crept backward a few meters, and all three heads again snaked to the top of the cattails. A piercing whine from the lead alien was followed by five loud tones in short succession, one each from the two spiders behind the leader and three more from somewhere deeper in the marsh. Then, with a soft whoosh, each of the spiders began to power up as though for flight.
Cattails and saw grass blew wildly around Robert as the propulsive blast of the aliens flattened weeds and sprayed water like the rotor downwash of a helicopter. Robert shielded his face with his right arm as the spiders rose, slipping their long tendrils free of the dark bog. In the distance, he could see three more spiders rise above the vegetation.
He wanted to watch it all, but chest cramps doubled him over. He clutched the sphere tight in his right hand. He couldn’t breathe. Craning his neck, he looked up one more time, cringing from the pain he could no longer ignore. The alien craft rose in a triangle formation, the lead one followed by its two partner spiders and three more from deeper within the swamp flying behind them—1-2-3, pointed like a dart straight up into the sky.
A searing pain brought him to his knees. The blue orb slipped from his grasp and sank slowly in the murky water as Robert crumpled, chest deep. A hot spike seemed to drive itself through his left shoulder, numbing his left arm, and he fell forward. He heard Barbara scream once more as he gasped for air, then sank beneath the green scum.
* * *
“Welcome back,” Barbara said, squeezing Robert’s hand half an hour later. He lay immobile on a stretcher at the edge of the marsh. Emergency medical technicians lifted the gurney and began to roll it away.
“Barbara?” Robert whispered.
“I’m here,” she said, trying to hurry along with the EMTs. “We almost lost you.”
She nodded. “Simon ran for help. I held you out of the water.” She shivered, still shocked by how close they’d come to losing him. “He saved your life.”
“I’m proud of him,” he whispered. “Roped some aliens, too.” He winced and squeezed her hand. “Must tell you . . . something,” he said, struggling to speak as the EMT locked the gurney into the floor of the ambulance and hooked Robert up to a portable EKG.
“Be quiet, Robert. Save your strength. We have that blue ball they gave you. It’s safe. Some NASA folks found it.” Barbara returned his squeeze. “You made history today—again.” Her tears fell on her brother’s shoulder.
“Listen! Must tell Scott O’Grady . . . at my lab . . . no one else.”
“They spoke . . . to me.” She saw him glance at the EMT, as though waiting while the technician moved to the back to close the doors.
“The aliens?” she asked.
He nodded; she felt his hand tremble in hers. He motioned with his head for her to lean closer as the van started its diesel motor. “These words. Repeat them . . . to Scott.”
He whispered into her ear. Barbara felt her skin go cold—then the EMT hurried her out the side door of the ambulance.
Robert leaned back, relieved. “Be sure to thank Simon.”
She wiped her wet eyes and waved in silent reply as the door closed and the vehicle rolled away.
Robert’s whispered message gnawed at her as she knelt beside her wet son and pulled him close. She’d always denied that aliens existed, certain that her brother’s recent Martian discoveries were the result of someone’s cruel hoax. Yet she’d seen the aliens today with her own eyes. Simon had delivered them to her. The proof.
And now her brother’s desperate whisper had, in the course of only a few minutes, shredded her deep conviction that life had been created only on Earth—and validated the beliefs of eccentric groups that stood for everything she opposed. She wanted with all her heart to forget this message that testified against the very foundations of her faith—
We are many. Do not fear. We are the Father Race.