Over the last year, my wife, Tara, was doing her best to patch the hole left by my absence. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been doing the same. It had been nine months since I had last been home. Actually, twelve if you don’t count the short, five-hour visit I had with her when my platoon had arrived back on Earth for a short restock of supplies. I missed her smile, the way she’d laugh at my jokes when no one else did, and the way she snuck her hand into mine when we walked down the street. It was far too long to be away from her, but at least I had the distraction of work. The image of Tara sitting and waiting for me day in and day out never left me, and most days it made me regret accepting the job. Each morning I woke up reaching for the warmth of her body, only to find she wasn’t there.
None of our families, or the crew for that matter, expected us to be gone that long. Nobody expected Jupiter’s resources to be so plentiful. Well, maybe we expected the resources to be there, but not even the board of directors of Jupiter Mining Unlimited expected our technology, or our machinery to work so flawlessly the very first time out. It had been one year straight of mining for us front-liners, and we were damn tired. Damn tired, and damn well ready for our three week vacation.
It was summer back on Earth, so we made excellent time traveling back. During the summer months, people actually wanted to stay on Earth, sit on the beach, and have a drink or two. It was during the winter months that the tourist ships really picked up and made traffic slow. But it was summer then, and not a single time were we warned about vacation cruisers entering our ship-space on our journey home. Nothing pissed off a group of tired, underpaid, horny miners more than slowing down so a tourist ship full of overpaid, elderly snobs could float on by and snap a few pictures of Mars.
As we all began to catch a glimpse of Earth from our bunk windows, I hopped down from my sleeping compartment, walked over to the computer, and turned on the local San Diego news stream. It was the only thing I could think of to get my brain ready for returning to the Earth way of life after being gone for so long.
“And this afternoon will be the Harvest Bean Festival,” the woman on the radio began. “Today will be the twenty-third annual festival, and it will begin after the ceremonial bean-shaped ribbon is cut by Mayor Arnold Jankowski. It all begins at noon! And while you are out and about today, San Diegoians, don’t forget that today’s terror level is orange. So be safe and have fun. Now back to the music!”
Jax, my roommate, had been shooting a glare at me from across the room. Without a word, he stormed across the steel-colored floor, his boots clanking with each step, and turned the stream off.
“How can you stand to listen to that bullshit, man?” he asked, as his jaw muscles tensed. “Orange, yellow, blue, or pink it doesn’t matter what the damn terror level is. When an alien cluster drops in on our asses and decides to blow us up cuz’ we’re mining what they think is theirs, it just doesn’t matter.”
I couldn’t think of much to say in defense of how Earth was handling the threat. There had already been six alien attacks before we left, all in and around the San Diego area. “Warning attacks” was what most people were calling them – warning us to stay away from Jupiter’s resources. After all, the aliens were here first; nobody doubted that. The resources were rightfully theirs if you asked me, but nobody asks miners what they think.
If it wasn’t me and Jax and the rest of our crew, it would have been a different group of meatheads blasting off into space towards the big red dot, so we went up anyhow and our families hated us for it. Too much money was in it for the big shots at JMU not to mine Jupiter when the only risk for them was losing a bunch of frontliners like me and Jax. Hell, our life insurance policies combined couldn’t pay for one of the board member’s collections of pin-striped suits. In other words, we all needed the money.
Eventually, I responded with a shrug in Jax’s direction, climbed back up to my sleeping compartment, and waited for our ship to land.
There were scattered patches of smoke that still hung, looming over our home in the still of the evening air as I approached on foot. Alarms of varying sources echoed and bounced off the walls of the buildings, or the parts of them that still remained. A slow breath of wind rustled the leaves of the surrounding trees and moved the smoke from my view, revealing to me the jagged cutout remains of our home, some of which were still burning. The very same place I had hoisted my wife across the threshold just two years prior now stood in ruins in front of me. All those months of waiting for us to be close once again, just to have it all taken away.
Jax had said to me on the day we deployed, “It’s only a matter of time until those alien sons-of-bitches stop dropping bombs on our military bases and start going after our wives and kids.” Nobody listened. Sure, we all could have quit and found other jobs. But no military leader would ever order such a violent attack on innocents, or so we all had thought. It would be inhumane, right? But we had all seemingly forgotten that these particular military leaders were not human at all.
As I walked up to the entrance of our home, I pushed opened the creaky remains of the door. It slipped off the hinges and crashed to the ground, breaking into tiny, smoldering fragments at my feet.
As I took my first step inside, I saw Tara’s body lying on the ground, her wedding ring flickering in the light from the burning remains of our home that surrounded her. It felt as though my heart was about to explode. The smell of her perfume danced into my nose, the feeling of her touch tingled up my arms, both just a fleeting memory of the past. My breathing intensified as I slowly began to realize my world as I had known it was over.
I fainted. My brain did all it could to shield me from the ache of seeing her sprawled out on the floor. I was immobilized by a prison of pain at her feet. Tears pooled on the charred carpet underneath me as I began to sob uncontrollably. I wanted vengeance. I wanted to hop back in my ship, find where its family lived, and murder them all one by one for taking away the only thing that made my life worthwhile. It was then that I felt it.
I peered to the right, where our bedroom once stood, and saw one of them crouched near the still burning headboard of our bed. As I pushed myself up on my knees, dizziness overcame me once more and I reached out to brace myself upon the coffee table next to me. As I gripped it, it crumbled away from the fire damage sending me face-first into the ground once more. I looked up from my fallen position and stared at the creature across the room.
He, or it, or whatever it was, gleamed in the fire’s illumination. It expelled air with alarming force from somewhere on its body, as it had no conventional nose on its face. It looked as though it was winter itself. All white, with long dreadlock-like blue hair that hung down to the small of its back. It stood, as I would, on two legs, and rocked back and forth as if it was readying itself to pounce. Rising from the ground, I braced myself in anticipation of the alien’s attack. My fight-or-flight response spiked as I stared into the eyes of my soul mate’s killer. There was no iris to speak of at all; they were as dark as night itself. I stood there, mute, but I swore I could feel its thoughts somehow. It wasn’t hate, or anger that I felt, but sadness from the being. Oddly, my hatred momentarily subsided, and when it looked into my eyes all I could feel was the thing’s utter remorse.
From somewhere, an icy wind cut through the heat of the flames around me, and in a glacier-white blur the creature disappeared. It took me a moment, but soon I realized that my wife’s body was also nowhere to be found. I collapsed once more to the ground in disbelief. The bastard had left me with nothing; it torched my home, stole my love, and left me in a pool of my own tears. I was too numb to think. There was a hole in my heart that I knew nothing could ever fill.
Days later, I met up with Jax and the rest of the squad downtown. The faces of the men that I had spent the past year with were nothing like I had ever seen before. There was an aura of grey that hung like a storm cloud around us. It was a mist that wouldn’t rise; it followed each of us wherever we went. Hell, I knew I looked like death itself, but I didn’t care. In fact, I wished for it – I longed for it. I wished for anything that would take me to Tara.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that the same thing had happened at each one of our homes, and nowhere else. The message was clear enough, and not a week later, JMU pulled the plug on its mining operations, sending us all into unemployment and JMU into a major public relations fiasco. We were all broke and alone, or so we thought.
It was the morning after JMU’s announcement that I awoke in the middle of the night to find myself shivering in discomfort. At first, I was surprised I had even slept, but was then more surprised by what stood before me. A cool breeze passed over my face as I looked once more into the darkness of the thing’s eyes. I glowered in its direction, ready to tear the thing limb from limb for murdering my wife and stealing her corpse. Its blue hair danced in the wind as the alien stood motionless, mild, and almost dream-like in front of the window of my new apartment. However, as I readied my body to lunge out of bed, I felt its emotions once more. Only this time I didn’t feel remorse coming from it, but rather happiness instead.
Suddenly, I felt a stirring to my side, and as I looked to my right I saw my wife lying in bed, her stomach rising and falling with each of her breaths. I instantly began to weep with joy. Just as quickly as it had taken her away, it had given her back to me. My wife’s face was as radiant as ever, her pale skin shined beautifully in the moonlight. I felt as though the tight knot in my stomach had been cut loose, and a wave of bliss flowed through me. As quickly as I could, I turned to face the being once more, but it had vanished as quickly as it appeared. There I sat, slack-jawed and confused.
As my heart rate slowed, I turned and placed my hand on my wife’s stomach. Her flesh was real. Her eyes opened and she spoke in a sleepy slur and said, “I love you, sweetie.” I wept joyously once more; tears fell from my face and landed on hers. To hear the words of my soul mate, after I had thought she was dead, was beyond belief. However, as ecstatic as I was, my mind still could not fully understand what had happened. Had the aliens staged the whole attack? Was I crazy? Was the creature toying with my emotions? Was I dead myself?
It was only as the days progressed, and one by one, members of our crew called to tell me that their loved ones had also returned, that I realized we were just pawns in a political maneuver that the media would never believe. My wife, remarkably without a single scratch on her body, and unable to recollect anything about the abduction, could only speak of a bright white light and a room filled with beings with fair-colored bodies and long blue hair. And I, overjoyed over the return of my love, could only speak of the aliens’ intellect and their fondness of life.
Adam Sprague’s work has been featured in 365 Tomorrows magazine, among others. He currently teaches English at Washington State University.