It was a Thursday night and Neil was sitting in his living room, reclining in his barcalounger, waiting for The Daily Show to come on. He would never tell Jon Stewart lest it go to his head, but Neil never missed an episode of the fake-news program, even if the graphic of the Earth at the beginning was spinning the wrong way.
It was late, nearly 11pm, and Neil’s wife and kids were asleep already. It was too late really for Neil to still be awake, so it was definitely too late for the phone to be ringing.
But it was...ringing, that was.
Neil’s heart leapt into his throat. The only thing he could think was that something terrible had happened to a loved one: his mother, one of his siblings, a dear friend.
“Hello?” Neil said into the phone, trying to tamp down the fear and panic that was rising in him.
“Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson?” the man on the other end asked, and he sounded breathless and distraught.
An image flashed through Neil’s mind of an emergency room doctor, covered in the blood of someone Neil loved, and he had to choke out his answer. “Yes?”
“Oh, thank goodness,” the man said with relief. “My name is Sam Marion and I am from the Space and Science Observatory in Dodge City, Kansas. We need your help.”
“It’s eleven at night,” Neil said in his angriest voice possible, though it wasn’t very loud considering he didn’t want to wake his kids.
“I know. I am terribly sorry, but this couldn’t wait.”
“Really?” Neil asked with disbelief. “What is so important it couldn’t have waited until morning? Are we downgrading Pluto again?”
“No, sir, it’s...well, we think...it may be...it is possible that…” The man sounded young right then, so very young, and Neil suddenly felt sympathy for him.
“What?” Neil asked, now more intrigued than angry. “What is it, son?”
“Aliens, sir. We think it may be aliens.”
Neil caught the red eye. He couldn’t believe these people had found aliens but he was intrigued enough to want to find out what exactly they had found.
When he disembarked from the plane, a woman was standing there holding a sign with his name on it. She was young, college-aged and Neil figured she was an intern for the observatory. Her long brown hair was clipped back and she was wearing a pair of sweats and an oversized sweatshirt from The University of Michigan. She looked like someone had woken her up in the middle of the night as well.
“Are you Dr. Tyson?” she asked him.
“I am,” he said and held out his hand.
“Jenna. Jenna Markus, that’s me,” she said and shook his hand.
“It’s nice to meet you. Do you know what is going on?” he asked her.
“No, sir, I don’t. But nobody ever tells me anything.”
She motioned for him to follow her and a security man took them through a back entrance and out onto a heli-pad. A helicopter was waiting for them there.
“Wow, they really brought out the big guns, didn’t they?” Neil asked. He was starting to get worried this may be more serious than he had originally thought.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know we had a helicopter before tonight,” Jenna told him and swung herself up into the bird.
Neil followed suit.
Sam Marion, the young scientist who had called Neil breathless and panicked, was in his late twenties with spiky black hair and big green eyes that were currently outlined with kohl. He was wearing a tight rock tee and a pair of even tighter black jeans with several chains attached and Neil figured the boy had been called in from a night of clubbing.
His boss, Dr. Frank Linden, was in his late forties, balding and short, but with startling blue eyes that looked at Neil in a rather calculating way.
“I wasn’t sure we should call in an outsider,” Dr. Linden told him. “But my assistant insisted we could trust you and Marion has never steered me wrong before.”
“Thanks, boss,” Sam said and winked at the man.
“Shut up and drink your coffee,” Dr. Linden told him. “I can’t have you drunk on the job.”
The four of them: Neil, Sam, Jenna, and Dr. Linden, all went through big glass doors into a very impressive laboratory. It was white with shiny metal tables lined with beakers and microscopes.
It was also empty of workers. Which was probably not unusual for 3am on a Friday, but considering they had this possible major discovery, Neil was a little surprised.
“Where is everyone else?” he asked. “Shouldn’t you have people on this?”
“Need-to-know only,” Frank told him. “Just Sam, Jenna and the two guys I have at the crash site. I am using the only people I trust,” he said and then raked his eyes over Neil. “And you too, I suppose. What did you tell your wife again?”
“Exactly what Sam told me to tell her - that a small meteor hit ground and you needed a second pair of eyes. I kept it vague.”
Neil didn’t mention that his wife’s response was, “They are rushing you out in the middle of the night like this...don’t you dare take me for stupid. You just call if it gets serious and be careful, for Christ’s sake, Neil.”
Neil never had taken her for stupid.
“Here it is,” Dr. Linden told him and gestured towards a small tray on one of the metal tables.
The piece of meteorite was the size of a plum but not perfectly rounded. It looked like it had broken off from the rest of the rock and the edges were crumbling a bit.
Also, it was silver.
Bright, shiny silver.
“What is that?” Neil asked and his voice sounded strange and far-away.
“It is a piece of the meteor,” Sam told him and ran his hands through the spiked locks on his head. “Now you see why we needed you.”
Neil tentatively touched the rock with one lone finger. It was cold, hard like metal, and yet it indented with his slight touch, like it was malleable despite the feel on the surface.
This was definitely not a rock.
“Where did it come from?” he asked, awed and terrified at once.
“Dude,” Sam told him, “it fell out of the sky.”
“Yes,” Neil said and looked up to meet the boy’s eyes, “but where did it land?”
Jenna made them all drinks in the fancy office cappuccino machines.
“It’s only my job because neither of those supposed genius scientists can figure out how to make the damn machine work,” she told Neil with a smile.
Then they loaded into a green SUV, Dr. Linden in the driver’s seat and Neil next to him.
“He doesn’t let anyone drive his baby,” Sam said from the back.
Half an hour into the drive, Neil looked back to see Jenna had dozed off, head resting on Sam’s shoulder while she slept. Sam almost seemed oblivious to it - head bobbing along to whatever tunes were playing in his earphones - except for the fact that he had placed a hand over top of hers and curled his fingers together with Jenna’s own.
When Dr. Linden announced that they were almost there, Sam shook the girl awake.
A few minutes later, Neil noticed the first signs of trouble - a large black helicopter circling the air in the distance.
“Pull over here,” he told Frank.
“The site is another two miles down the road,” he replied.
“Yeah, just...trust me.”
They stopped and got out. Jenna started to pull on the backpack that contained all the supplies they needed, but Neil waved her off.
“If it’s clear, we can come back for the SUV and supplies. We should get moving, stay off the road,” he said.
“You think the government found it?” Sam asked him, up-close so no one else could hear.
“Government would be the best of our options,” Neil said and got them all moving.
They were about two hundred yards out, up on a ridge, when he got his first glimpse of the crash site. The impact crater was about 2,000 square feet around and the meteor itself was about half that size. It looked like any other of the many rocks that hit the Earth on a regular basis, except that it was silver and shiny, like the piece from the lab.
“This wasn’t like this when we were here yesterday,” Sam said and gestured at the recent changes to the site.
Men. About thirty of them, in camouflage. There was a large military style truck, though it showed no signs of the standard military markings on its side. Off to the back of the commotion was another black helicopter, idling, a man in the pilot’s seat.
Neil dropped to the ground and motioned for the others to join him behind some brush.
“What in the hell is going on here?” Dr. Linden said in a whisper.
“And where are Nicholas and Jason?” Jenna asked.
“What are you thinking?” Sam whispered and Neil could see the boy watching him, eyes wide and green in the early morning light.
“The impact zone should be bigger if this thing crashed into it as hard as a regular meteor comes down, right?”
“So...did this thing slow down as it was approaching?”
“Shit,” Sam muttered. “Fuck all, I didn’t actually really think it was aliens.”
A group of men in white containment outfits approached the meteor then. They had a long device held out between two of them and Neil thought that it almost looked like an arm that might be used in robotic surgery. One of the men adjusted something on the back of the arm and the whole device lit up, as if it was glowing from the inside out.
“What is that?” Sam whispered.
“I don’t know,” Neil told him and watched in fascination as a red beam shot straight out of the robotic arm and into the center of the meteor.
Neil felt as if his companions were all holding their breaths. He knew he was, at the least.
Suddenly there was a loud whizzing noise and a piece of the meteor seemed to open up, revealing a hole in the front. Neil could swear, it almost looked like a hatchway had opened on the rock. But if there was a way for them to shoot in, there had to be a way for whatever it was to shoot out.
“I have to go check on my people,” Dr. Linden told them suddenly and stood up.
“No, no,” Neil said and grabbed his wrist. “They should have called you when the government showed up. Something is off. This isn’t right.”
“They’re my people,” Frank told him in earnest and pulled away from his grasp.
Neil would have liked to commend the man on his loyalty and need to care for the people under his charge, except he knew this was foolish and stupid, possibly suicidal to go walking in there.
Something felt very, very wrong.
“We have to go with him,” Jenna said and she sounded beyond scared.
“Okay, but stay low and don’t make a sound,” Neil told them both.
They crawled along, slowly and as quiet as possible, getting as close as they dared. Neil wanted them to be able to hear what was going on, but he also wanted them to have a chance to get away if things turned bad.
And he suspected they were about to...
Dr. Linden got closer to the site than Neil had expected before one of the armed men pulled a gun on him. He was quickly surrounded by five men, all with large semi-automatic weapons pointed at him.
Dr. Linden’s hands flew up at his sides.
“What is going on here?” he demanded and Neil had to give him props for how very little his voice was shaking. “This is my site! What happened to my people?”
“Sir,” one of the men said, “I need you to calm down and shut up.”
“I will not! I want to talk to whoever is in charge.”
“I’ve got this,” a voice said and then a man in a suit broke through the circle of guns.
He was older, definitely older than Neil himself and had the look of a man who’d seen too many things in his life. He approached slowly, taking the time to light a cigarette as he went. Behind him followed another man, just over six feet tall with dark hair. In one hand he held a gun. On the other hand, he wore a black glove.
“Dr. Frank Linden, I presume,” the man said.
“How do you know my name?” Frank asked the man. “Who are you?”
The man chuckled, dark and unnerving. “I know everything about you, Frank,” he said. “Your men were only too happy to provide the answers I needed, after Alex here persuaded them a little.”
“Where are Nicholas and Jason?” Dr. Linden demanded, but his voice cracked on it, his breathing gone shallow and short, that of a man suddenly terrified for his life.
“Well, they seemed so prone to running off at the mouth and we couldn’t have that now, could we? Can't let the public know about this little discovery. It would cause mass panic, after all,” the man said and took a long drag from his smoke.
The armed men stepped back as the man in black came forward. “Don’t worry, Doctor,” he said, “those men won’t be burdening your payroll any longer.”
His eyes flicked off to the side and that’s when they all saw it - the two bodies stacked side by side, half-covered with a black tarp.
“Those are Nicky’s shoes,” Jenna whispered. “Why did they put Nicky’s shoes on that man?” but her voice was choked and nearing hysterical and Sam just put his arm around her and pulled her against his side.
“Before we finish this, Frank,” the smoking man said, “I need to make sure your men weren’t liars. They said you were coming back with a specialist before you removed anything from the site. But I hardly believe that is true.”
The man in black pulled his gun, pressed it against Dr. Linden’s temple.
Even from the distance they were at, Neil could smell the fresh scent of urine.
“Did you remove any of the object?” the smoking man asked Frank.
“No, no,” Dr. Linden whispered.
“Is that ‘no, no, don’t shoot me’ or ‘no, no, I didn’t remove any of the object’?” the man in black asked.
“No,” Frank answered, slightly louder now. “I didn’t remove any of the object. I didn’t want to compromise any of the material before our expert got here.”
It was a good lie.
“And where is this so-called expert now?” the smoking man asked.
Frank curled and uncurled his fists before answering. “On a plane. We had to fly him in.”
“What do you think, Alex?”
The man in black tilted his head so he was half-watching Dr. Linden and half-watching the smoking man. He said something then, in a language that sounded a lot like Russian, and the other man nodded.
“Are you sure?”
“I think,” the man in black said, “that as long as the expert isn’t Fox Mulder, we can contain this.”
“Very well,” the smoking man told him and dropped his cigarette butt to the ground, crushed it with his heel. “Carry on then,” and he turned, walked away.
The man with the gun pulled the trigger.
When the gunshot rang out, Jenna screamed, loud and echoing in the early morning quiet that followed.
There was a moment - slow motion as if Neil were watching it on a movie screen - of Dr. Linden’s body crumpling to the ground, before the man in black turned his head in their direction.
Neil swore their eyes locked and then he was scrambling backwards, the words choking out of him. “Run, run.”
Sam was muttering under his breath, “Shit, fuck, fuck,” while Jenna was immobile, eyes wide and glassy.
Neil could see himself in his mind’s eye, watching this on the big movie screen, his own voice yelling, “Run, you idiots, run,” from the audience where his other-self sat.
Then time snapped back into itself and Neil lunged forward, grabbed Sam by the chin until he was staring into those big green eyes, the kohl around the edges smudged and ruined.
“Get. Her. Up,” Neil said, biting off each word to break through the haze of shock that had surrounded his companions.
Sam blinked, eyes fluttering closed and open and then jerked his head towards Jenna, who was making short whining noises, the sound pouring out of her involuntarily. Sam grabbed her arm, yanked on it but Jenna didn’t move.
It was taking too long, though only a few seconds had passed, Neil knew the next few seconds would determine their fate. He grabbed Jenna’s other arm and pulled her to her feet.
“Fucking run,” he said and then turned and did just that.
Behind them, the man in black shouted something in Russian and then, “Shoot them!” and Neil knew the armed men were running towards them.
He took long strides, thankful that his wife made him eat right and exercise regularly. Still, he was too old for a foot-chase and only the adrenaline and the thought of never tucking his children into bed again pushed him on. Sam and Jenna were two steps behind him, Sam pulling her along, forcing her to go faster than she had ever run in her life.
Neil knew they would never make it back to their own car, two miles down the road. He made a decision then that would either cost them their lives or save them.
He darted off to the side, skidded down a steep drop and hurled himself onto the ground, scrambling for cover behind the first low bushes he found. Sam followed him - trusting him in a way that Neil was unsure was wise - Jenna still holding tight to Sam’s grip.
The younger two found cover behind their own bush, about twenty feet away. Jenna was still making that whining sound, panting it out between gasps of breath and Sam covered her mouth with his hand, stifled the noise.
Neil watched as several pairs of boots went running past on the ridge above. The man in black was leading them, shouting at them to use kill shots.
Neil didn’t realize he had been holding his breath until the white spots appeared before his eyes. He laid his head down on the cool soft earth beneath him and wished for home.
He only lifted his head again when he noticed Sam making hand motions at him and then pointing off, farther down the slope. Neil looked and there were three black SUVs, side by side, just sitting there like beacons of hope for their escape.
They crawled along then, the three of them, careful not to make any noise down the slope, staying low to the ground.
They got to the SUVs safely enough, but Neil didn’t like how exposed they were.
“We don’t have the keys,” he said and positioned himself in front of Jenna, unwilling to watch anyone else get shot today.
“Just give me a second to hotwire it and we’ll be cool,” Sam said and Neil raised an eyebrow at him.
“Can you do that?”
“Benefits of my misspent youth,” Sam said with a grin, despite the sand and sweat that covered his face now.
Sam popped open the car door and pulled himself up into a crouching position.
Neil scanned the horizon, but he couldn’t see the armed men. That didn’t make him feel any better though. Better to have eyes on your enemy than not.
Sam was reaching up, flipping down the visor and then, “Also, benefits of watching too many action movies. Smart men-in-black don’t waste valuable time searching their pockets for their car keys.”
And he was dangling the keys in front of Neil’s face. “I’m driving.”
They were stopped at a small roadside diner, about two hours out from their location.
Sam had driven them down some back road and then onto the highway. Neil had watched the side-view mirror the whole time, expecting the other black SUVs to pull up behind them. Jenna had stayed silent in the backseat for awhile, head rolled to the side, and Neil thought she must be sleeping.
Until the girl suddenly sat up and blinked her eyes, like a fog clearing in the morning. “They have to have a GPS tracker on this vehicle. We should dump it.”
They were the first words she had said since Dr. Linden had died in front of their eyes and Neil was a little shocked at how calm and collected she sounded. But he agreed with her assessment and they stopped at the first place they could find - a small joint named Mama’s Grill.
Sam immediately went to the bathroom and Neil wondered if the younger scientist was finally letting the calm state he had been in wash away. Jenna sat across from Neil in the booth and picked idly at the pancakes she had ordered.
“They do not pay me enough for this,” she muttered and when Neil looked at her, there was a wry grin on her face.
“You’re an intern,” Neil told her. “Do they pay you at all?”
“He had a wife,” she said, softer. “Someone should call her.”
“Too risky,” Sam answered, rejoining them in the booth. Neil noticed he had washed his face, scrubbed the makeup off, and suddenly Sam looked so much younger and scared than he had the night before when Neil had first introduced himself. “They will be monitoring his home-line. They’re gonna start tracking us, if they haven’t already.”
Jenna’s eyes lit up then and she pointed at Neil. “Except for you. They don’t know about you. Dr. Linden never told them the name of the expert that was coming in. They think you are still on a plane somewhere.”
“Until they pull the phone records from the observatory and then they will see Sam called me at eleven last night.”
“No, I called from a payphone outside my date’s apartment, after I dropped her off for the night,” Sam replied. “Dr. Linden didn’t want me to use the observatory phones. He said too many people would be after what we had.”
“He knew this was bigger than all of us,” Jenna said, with the sudden realization that this was, in fact, bigger than all of them.
“What the hell happened out there?” Sam suddenly hollered and pounded his fists down on the table.
Jenna jumped beside him.
“I think the bigger question is what the hell did you find out there, if it is important enough to kill for?” Neil asked them.
“We have to do something,” and Sam looked pale in the diner lighting.
“No, I have to do something,” Neil answered him. “You two have to hide. You’ll be the only Space and Science Observatory employees unaccounted for. They’ll be watching every camera within 500 miles for your faces.”
“You think they have that kind of pull?” Sam asked.
“We don’t even know who the hell they are,” Jenna said, her face stricken suddenly with something akin to grief. “Dr. Tyson,” and her voice was cracking with it, “they won’t be looking for you. They don’t know about you.”
“I know,” Neil said. “I have to do this alone,” and he could hear the finality in his own words. Neil suddenly felt very, very tired.
“No, no way, no,” Sam said. “Dr. Linden was my friend. Jason and Nicholas were my friends - they were kind of douchebags, but they were my friends. And this is...this is…fucking aliens,” and he whispered the last part, head ducked down in case anyone was listening. “We stay together.”
“You’re a liability,” Neil told him and Jenna nodded.
“He’s right. For now, he is in the clear. If an image pops somewhere of us with him, all that anonymity goes out the window.”
Sam took a deep breath, let it out slow. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, rummaged around until he retrieved a business card. He handed the card to Neil with a look of determination on his face.
The card was plain and white with only one lone phone number listed on it, no other indicating information.
“What is this?”
“It’s a number for some associates of mine. They can help you.”
“Is it safe?” Neil asked, turning the card over in his hand. There was nothing on the back either.
“Safer than where we sit now,” Sam told him and Neil slid the card into his pocket.
“Where will you go?” he asked Sam. “They’ll be looking for you everywhere.”
“I know a place,” Jenna answered and left a wad of bills on the table for the waitress. “There is a cabin I know of. They leave the key outside. It’s in a very isolated location, so we should be safe there.”
The three of them made their way outside and then stood there, it suddenly dawning on them that they couldn’t take the SUV.
“I’ve got it,” Sam said and wandered off, towards a man in a semi-truck. While Sam chatted up the man, Neil turned to Jenna, who was pulling her dark hair back into a ponytail.
“Stay away from places with security cameras,” Neil told her and she nodded at him. “And stock up on groceries before you get there. No need to go into the local town and let anyone see your face. Stay in the cabin. Don’t come out for anything less than life and death. Just give me some time to figure this all out.”
“I know, Dr. Tyson,” she said in a gentle voice. “I know.”
“And for crying out loud, don’t lose each other,” he said and then pulled her into a hug, held her there for the briefest of seconds.
“You’ll need this,” she said and pulled something from her pocket. It was a small baggie and in it was the sole piece of rock Neil had seen earlier in the lab.
“Klepto much?” he asked her with a grin.
“Too much genre TV has taught me not to trust anyone when aliens are involved. Including the nighttime janitor.”
She slid the package into his pocket and grinned up at him, something shining through in her eyes. “Keep it secret. Keep it safe,” she told him.
Sam came back then and motioned at the semi-truck driver. “Luke’s gonna give us a ride, Jenna.”
“Skeevy,” she muttered.
“I’ll protect you, my lady,” Sam said and slung an arm around her shoulder.
“You better,” Neil told him and held out his hand for Sam to shake.
“Sorry I got you into this mess,” Sam said a bit sheepishly and Neil just shook his head at the boy.
“Best adventure I’ve ever been on,” he told Sam, even though he wanted nothing more than to be home in his own bed now.
“What about you?” Jenna asked him. “Are you going to hitch a ride?”
“Got something better than that for you,” Sam answered and pulled Neil around the side of the building. There was a station wagon, just sitting there parked slightly crooked, and Sam popped open the door and leaned in. A moment later and the engine started with a sputter.
“So what?” Neil asked. “I’m just suppose to hotwire these poor unsuspecting people’s car and take off?”
“I hotwired it,” Sam told him. “You’re just taking off in it.”
“How do I rectify this?” Neil asked, more to himself than not, but Sam clapped him on the shoulder anyway.
“It’s cool, man. You’re Neil deGrasse Tyson and you’re saving the world.”
Part Two can be found here.