IRiS, the Interstellar Recovery Spacecraft, captured samples from a comet passing through the solar system and found something remarkable.
Danny lives in his own world, finding connections through video games and gesture.
Emmett does what all good fathers do and seeks for new ways to connect with his son. Sometimes first contact begins right here at home.
All I could think about as I pedaled along the bike path was aliens. I loved aliens as a kid. Heck, I still do. That’s why I couldn’t wait to get home and give my son aliens of his very own.
Daniel is in the second grade, with his own ideas about the world. I’m not sure what they are. Figuring out what is going on in Danny’s head is a challenge, but it’s rewarding when something gets through to him. Maybe aliens will be just the trick.
I parked the bike in the garage, took the panniers off the back and headed into the house. “Danny!”
Nata came out of the kitchen. “Good luck. He’s up in his room.”
Up in his room meant one thing: video games. I found him perched on the corner of his bed playing a retro Super Mario Bros 3. Danny was determined to beat the entire series from its very beginnings.
Mario grabbed a raccoon suit and took off into the sky.
He made a grunting noise. That was typical. His way of telling me that he knew I was here but he didn’t mind. I sat down on the bed. Mario grabbed a turtle shell and threw it at a line of walking turtles. He chased after it until it hit the last turtle and a one-up mushroom appeared. Mario ran into it and continued his rampage.
“Good moves,” I said.
Watching Danny play is amazing. He is so quick and responsive in the game. When he pulls off a difficult move, you can almost see a smile on his lips. Interrupting him now wouldn’t work; I’d have to wait until he finished the current level. Now that I was home, and he could see that I had a package, he would probably come find me when he finished.
I kissed the top of his head. He didn’t pull away. That was nice.
Nata was sitting on one of the bar stools in the kitchen with a cup of coffee sat on the counter beside her. She lowered her Kindle.
“What do you have there?”
I took a seat at the dining room table and put the package down in front of me. “Space Monkeys.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“You know. Space Monkeys. Like Sea Monkeys, only these are aliens from space.”
“Remember? It was on the news.”
“Oh, really? Did you get those for Danny or yourself?”
That really was a good question. I wanted to share this with Danny. Finding ways to share things with him was one of the most challenging, and rewarding things in my life. It was like that with video games. He took to all of the old classics right away. Some of my best memories are playing those games with Mario, Donkey Kong, Sonic, and Link. Danny hasn’t tried the Zelda games yet, but I don’t want to introduce them until I track down the old Gameboy games. Danny likes to do the entire series, in order produced. I figure there are plenty there for him to do, but I want him to learn more about the universe than video games.
And aliens might be just the thing. I tipped the package back. There were pictures of the aliens on the packaging. Enlarged, of course, but they looked something like fat fish with four radial arms. In motion, they pointed the arms forward and back and wriggled like a snake through the water. When they stopped, they used all four arms to capture prey. The most exciting thing about them was their bioluminescence: they flashed a rainbow of colors. Signals to one another, it seemed.
Nata sat down and took the package. “It was that probe you told me about?”
“IRiS. Interstellar Recovery Spacecraft. It was the sample return mission from that comet that was passing through the solar system. An amazing technical feat. They couldn’t match velocity, so they approached it on a trajectory that took them through the tail and captured debris coming off the comet.”
“And found aliens? Are they sure about that?”
I love my wife, but this sort of thing wasn’t something she paid that much attention to. In that respect, she was more like the rest of the population.
“How do they know this wasn’t from Earth?”
I took the package and turned it around so that she could see the short popular science explanation on the back of the box, showing the key proof that these really were aliens, all in a snazzy 3D holographic display.
“Handedness. Amino acids on Earth are left-handed and sugars are right-handed, but with these guys it’s the opposite. It also makes them safe. They can’t spread because they couldn’t digest anything on Earth.”
“Life finds a way,” Nata said.
“Yeah, but these aren’t enzyme-inhibited dinosaurs. They simply aren’t going to find anything compatible on Earth except for the food that the company produces.”
Our debate was interrupted when Danny came downstairs. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs for a moment just taking in what was going on. After he saw enough, he came over and sat down at the end of the table. I met Nata’s eyes. She smiled. I pushed the package over in front of Danny.
“Aliens, packaged and sold.” Nata shook her head and stood up. “Amazing.”
It was amazing. Danny reached up and touched the pictures on the package. I knew he’d already read the text. He turned the box around and studied the holographic explanation. When the probe returned with the comet samples, he’d only been three years old; but even then he watched the news with me. Did he remember that? I remembered how he sat next to me the entire time, not moving, his eyes fixed on the screen and afterwards he had smiled at me.
Danny set the package down. He got up, left the table and went back upstairs.
Nata came around the table and hugged me close. She kissed the top of my head. “Sorry, Emmett.”
I dragged the package over. No problem. These things took time; I’d get another shot at it.
My chance didn’t come until the next morning. I’d left the package sitting on the dining room table; and when I came downstairs, I found Danny already up, sitting at the table with his cereal. He was looking at the package.
“Good morning, Danny.” He didn’t pull away when I kissed the top of his head. I took that as a good sign, but I didn’t push it.
I went into the kitchen and started making my oatmeal. Routine is important for Danny. He takes comfort in things being the same each day; changes have to be introduced slowly. That’s why I didn’t worry too much when he walked away yesterday. Keeping the Space Monkeys out on the table was a way to let him get used to them.
I finished the oatmeal and sat down on the other side of the package. Danny looked up, and then back down at the box. He pushed aside his cereal bowl and pulled the package onto his side of the table. He turned it around and stared at the pictures of the aliens. I could sit and watch my son for hours, but I don’t get the chance: life always gets in the way. When he was a baby, he would sit next to me while I worked. The computer fascinated him. For a while it looked like his development would be normal, but then something changed. Like other families, we don’t know what happened or why; but we see the results every day.
Nata is wonderful but she doesn’t believe that the bright baby boy we remember is still with us. She loves Danny and is supportive, but she thinks I should just accept that he’s never going to respond as much as I think he can. She worries that I might be pushing him too hard.
I tapped the box. “The aliens are inside. If we fill their bowl with water they’ll grow.”
Danny looked up at me and back down at the box.
“You’d be able to see them swimming. They flash like Christmas lights.” And hopefully wouldn’t trigger a seizure. I didn’t think they would.
Danny pushed the package away. He got up; but he took his bowl and cereal box to the kitchen, so he couldn’t be too upset. He headed upstairs, all perfectly right in Danny’s world; it must be video game time. I checked the time, though I didn’t really need to. Yep, just as I’d thought. It was like Danny had his own day planner in his head, with everything scheduled to the minute each day. His day-to-day scheduled varied to take into account different activities; but if you knew his schedule, you knew what he’d be doing at any given time. It took him a while to adapt to any changes to his routine; he wasn’t going to scrap his schedule to look at aliens. Which meant I had at least two hours before he came down again, so I finished breakfast and went to get work done.
I took a break when I heard Danny coming downstairs. We both arrived at the table at the same time. He looked across the table at me and then at the box. We didn’t need to talk about it. I opened the box, and one at a time handed him the contents.
One activation code to download the instruction manual to a reader. I keyed it in and handed the pad to Danny.
One glass fish bowl with a laser-etched flag on the bottom signifying it was produced in the United States of America.
Danny sat down the pad to study the glass bowl.
One bag of white gravel. Optional, according to the instructions.
One reusable steel jar containing a one-month food supply. Specially designed for the appropriate chirality needed by the Space Monkeys.
One specially designed net to transfer the Space Monkeys to another container when the bowl needs cleaning.
One bag of salts to recreate the saltiness of the cometary water found to contain the Space Monkeys.
And the last thing, one steel capsule designed to emulate the capsules on the IRiS probe that first brought our visitors to Earth. The capsule kept the Space Monkeys in a state of hibernation, just as they’d been found on the comet, even these that had been bred on Earth.
Danny studied each offering in turn. He laid them all out in a row in front of him according to the order that they were used in the instructions. We sat there studying these pieces as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. He lightly tapped his fingers on the table top, first the left and then the right. From his slight rocking I could see that he was kicking his feet. It dawned on me then what he must be feeling. He was excited! I tried not to smile too much, but it was the greatest thing to sit there and realize that he’d gotten excited about what we were doing.
Abruptly he got up from the table and headed back upstairs. I looked at the clock. 11:00 AM and Danny’s internal planner said it was time for more video games. After the excitement of the unpacking, he probably needed the games more than ever. I left him to it and made myself go back to work. I needed to get my word counts in today.
I came back out for lunch and saw Nata putting the contents back into the box. “Don’t!”
She jumped. “Emmett! What?!”
I looked at the stairs. Danny wasn’t down yet, but he would be soon. It was almost noon. He was precise. I moved past her and took the bags and containers out of the box. I laid them out as he’d had them set up. I picked up the pad and switched it back to the instruction manual. I put it down as he was coming down the stairs. We don’t fight often and never in front of Danny.
I looked that way with my eyes, quickly, but so that she’d notice. “He laid them out.”
Nata nodded. She might not always agree with me but if Danny took an interest in something then she supported it.
Danny came straight to the table. He stood for a minute behind his chair and stared at the objects. He looked up at us.
“I’ll make lunch,” Nata said.
She went into the kitchen, and I sat down. Danny looked back at the contents of the Space Monkey kit. He reached out and moved them, one at a time, small adjustments. Getting them back to exactly the position they’d been in before Nata had moved them, I realized. Then he sat down.
We waited. Nata finished the sandwiches and brought them to the table. Grilled cheese all around. We ate in silence. Danny bounced a bit in his chair as he ate. He was still excited.
“Daddy was telling me about the aliens earlier,” Nata said. “Aliens from outer space on our table. That’s pretty neat.”
Danny rocked a bit more as he finished his sandwich. He set the plate to the side closest to Nata. When she finished she took his plate and mine. Nata stayed in the kitchen. Danny and I sat at the table with the kit between us. Danny picked up the bowl. He got up and carried it into the kitchen. Nata moved aside to let him at the sink. There’s a step stool on one side for Danny. He walked up, put the bowl in the sink and turned on the water. When he had it full he turned off the water and brought it slowly and carefully back to the table. He didn’t spill a drop. As soon as he sat it down he left the table.
After he was gone, Nata came over and put a hand on my shoulder. “Did he lose interest?”
I pointed to the pad but didn’t move it. “Step three. Let the water sit at until it as room temperature. At least two hours.”
“He understands that?”
I squeezed her hand. “Yes. He does. He’s excited about this but he’s got his routines too. We’ll see what he does later.”
4:00 PM. Danny came back to the table and we both sat in our chairs. For a while he tapped his fingers and kicked his legs. Then he went to the kitchen and came back with a large spoon. He set it down so that he could open and pour the contents of the salts bag into the water. He stirred the bowl with the spoon until the salts were completely dissolved. Not a trace remained. I thought he might stop then, but he didn’t. He added the white gravel. Then a carefully measured serving of the food, which, according to the instructions, needed to dissolve into the water. Last of all he picked up the capsule with the Space Monkeys in hibernation. He twisted the two halves but couldn’t get it opened.
I thought that might be it. If he got too frustrated would he abandon the whole experiment? “I’ll open it for you. If you want?”
Danny said, “If you want?”
I heard Nata gasp in the kitchen. He so rarely said anything these days. I understood that by repeating the question he meant that he did want me to help. I held out my hand.
He gave me the capsule.
My throat tightened. I felt pressure in my eyes, but I focused and twisted the capsule open. It was hard to open and came undone with a pop. Danny rocked more. I handed it back to him with the halves still together. He took the capsule and opened it up above the bowl. I don’t know what I expected. Some sort of powder, I guess. Instead, things like wrinkled white raisins, a little smaller, tumbled out into the water. A dozen or so of them landed and sank like stones. Now I understood why the gravel might be optional. Against the white gravel, you could hardly make out the Space Monkeys. Danny closed the capsule and set it to the side.
I was aware that Nata had come up behind me. We were all watching the bowl.
I saw them now. They swelled like mushrooms from the bottom of the bowl. If they’d been raisins before, now they became lumpy grapes. Suddenly one shot off the gravel surface with a push of four limbs that had uncoiled from its body. It hung in the water with the limbs whipping around. The edges looked slightly furred, and I realized it was combing the water for food. We all watched the tiny alien as it ate whatever was available. In moments, the others launched themselves from the bottom as well. They took up positions in the bowl and swept their arms about for food.
Danny clapped his hands.
It startled us both. When I looked up at Nata I saw her hastily wipe tears from her eyes.
“Oh, Emmett,” she whispered.
I smiled and looked back at Danny. He met my eyes. Just a second and then he looked back at the Space Monkeys.
We watched until it was time to fix dinner. It being my turn, I left Nata at the table with Danny and went to make pizza dough. It doesn’t take long and let me get back to the table again. We all sat and watched the Space Monkeys. After feeding for quite a while, they started swimming around the bowl. When they swam, two limbs went forward like someone putting their palms together over their head and two limbs went back. No way to know which was the head or tail, if either term applied at all. They wriggled through the water with a snake-like motion. Fed and rehydrated, they looked to be at little more than a centimeter long.
The pizza dough finished rising and I made pizza. We ate at the table watching the Space Monkeys swim around. Or at least Danny watched them: I found myself watching him more than the Space Monkeys. He might not be expressive, but I could honestly say this was the happiest I’d seen him. Then he finished dinner and abruptly left the table and the Space Monkeys behind.
Nata looked like she was going to say something but I shook my head. He went upstairs.
“He has his routines,” I said. “That’s fine. He probably needs a break anyway. This was a big deal for him.”
“For all of us. You were right to bring them home. But, are you sure they’re safe? I mean they are aliens, aren’t they?”
“Yes, they are. It’s fine.”
Danny didn’t pay any more attention to the Space Monkeys until it was time to get ready for bed. He broke his usual bedtime routine to come back downstairs to the table. He stood at his chair rocking back and forth for several minutes, his eyes watching them dart around the bowl. Then he picked it up and carried it towards the stairs with careful steps. Nata and I followed, but at a distance so that we didn’t crowd him. He took each step one at a time, getting both feet on each before going to the next. When he got upstairs he carried the bowl to his room and put it down on his nightstand before climbing beneath the blankets and turning out the light.
As if another switch had been thrown, the Space Monkeys lit up as we both walked into the room. Danny lay in his bed watching them flash and swim. Reds, greens, blues, yellows and many more colors. At times it looked like they swam in patterns flashing through colors in fast sequences. He watched it all.
I remembered being a child and looking up at the stars with my father through a telescope. He’d always believed there was life out there. I loved the stories and read all of his science fiction books. I felt a thrill realizing that we were sitting here watching a show that evolved somewhere else. I don’t know how they got on the comet, but I remember reading that it might have been deliberate, the same way we sent recordings on probes. Someone might have seeded an interstellar comet with a tough example of life from their planet. Something that could survive the passage. The fact that these weren’t simple microorganisms suggested a whole ecology. The argument was that the Space Monkeys couldn’t have evolved in space. There had even been suggestions that the comet itself had been artificially propelled on its journey. It was as if we’d taken tardigrades and sent them off into space on a comet accelerated to leave the solar system.
It was a miracle that could be bought now in most toy stores. The thought was so odd that I nearly laughed out loud.
Nata told Danny goodnight and left. I stayed sitting beside him a while longer to watch the Space Monkeys.
“We don’t know how far they came. Thousands of years over many light years. We don’t know. The comet is seeding them throughout space. They might not have survived anywhere else, but they are thriving on Earth. We know that we’re not alone.”
“Thank you, Daddy.”
I blinked back tears and kissed his head. I left him then with the alien light to keep him company.
This story is the 90th short story release, written in July 2009. It appeared in On Spec, and was later reprinted for special educator’s package. The education edition included background information, a glossary, and discussion materials, as well as illustrations. It remains one of my favorite stories.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Different Gravities.