A Triptych Tale …

Extremophiles

A Triptych Tale

 

Due to the monumental coincidence of timing, Anna Chu always associated the aliens with her daughter. When she told people that, they smiled and laughed, assuming that it was just because she found out that she was pregnant on the same day that the first alien arrived. No one ever asked if there was more to it than that, which was fine because Anna wasn’t sure she wanted to explain that it wasn’t only the timing. It was the fact that both her daughter, Meagan, and the alien were creatures that crashed into the world out of nowhere and completely disrupted the status quo and all future plans. But that was a connection that Anna kept to herself.

It was a cool March dawn that belied the heat that would come later in the day — the unseasonably early heat that had become the norm in recent years — and she was birding in Baldwin Preserve when the morning sickness hit with the swiftness of a swooping peregrine. Technically, she wasn’t just birding, but doing fieldwork for her doctoral thesis on how climate change was effecting songbird migration. One second she was training her binoculars on a blue-headed vireo as it hopped about the thin outer branches of a hemlock, and the next she was trying to avoid her shoes as she doubled over puking. The loud retches scared the bird away. Anna moved to a different spot and tried to focus on spotting songbirds, but after barely forcing down rising bile and nausea less than ten minutes later she gave up and biked back to her apartment. She had to pull over once on the ride, and vomited once more when she got home. She couldn’t think of anything she’d eaten that would disagree with her, and she didn’t feel sick otherwise; nor was she running a temperature. She sipped water and nibbled saltines until about ten-thirty, when the nausea finally passed for good. She looked at the clock, realized that the morning was slipping into afternoon, and had a sudden chilling realization. The pregnancy test she took forty-five minutes later confirmed it.

… she was birding in Baldwin Preserve when the morning sickness hit with the swiftness of a swooping peregrine.

Anna didn’t have any classes that day, but Leland was working, and she didn’t want to break the news to him over the phone or via text, so she sat in her apartment and waited all day for him to get there. Since they were staying at her apartment that night, it was technically her turn to cook dinner, but she was too anxious to stand over a stove or chop vegetables. The TV ran all day, but Anna couldn’t have told anyone what had been on. Finally, at a little past five, she heard Leland’s steady footsteps on the stairs outside the door. She had it open before his keys were out of his pocket.

He was happy about it when she told him. “What are you looking like that for?” he asked her. “This is great news.”

“But school, and your work, and — we’re not even married.” The words were out before she even fully thought them, wasn’t sure why she’d thought them at all. Anna had never wanted to get married. She’d told Leland that the first time he’d brought it up almost two years ago, at which point they’d only been together for a year. “We don’t even live together,” she said, a too-late attempt to amend herself.

The beatific smile on his face told Anna all she needed to know. She felt an actual physical pressure, his proposal building up like a high-pressure weather system pushing toward her. Mercifully, before he had a chance to speak, both their phones began buzzing.

Leland glanced at his phone. “It’s my parents.”

Anna looked at hers, and saw that her parents were calling as well. “Don’t say anything about this,” she said just before Leland answered. There was no need. There were bigger things to talk about.

#

The alien plummeted through the atmosphere with almost no warning. Astronomers had been tracking it for months, before it even entered the solar system, but it hadn’t registered as anything more interesting than an asteroid that would come closer to Earth than most. By the time it abruptly shifted course and began streaming toward the planet it was too late. Theories of what it could be were just being floated when it crash-landed in the outskirts of Des Moines, throwing up debris and sending a shock wave for miles. Trees and power lines toppled, buildings crumbled under the heat and force. News sites reported that five hundred and thirty thousand people had been killed.

The beatific smile on his face told Anna all she needed to know.

For hours, no one was quite sure what had happened. News helicopters circled the impact zone from a distance, long-range lenses zooming in to catch glimpses through the smoke and dust of what looked like a massive tailless and eyeless fish, the sort that lived at the bottom of the ocean, a leftover from prehistory.

Despite the destruction, the creature was initially given the benefit of the doubt. The US government worked with the UN in attempts to communicate with it. They flashed lights on all sides of it, unsure where its light receptors—if there even were any—were located. When nothing happened, they moved on to sound, and finally began prodding the creature, exposing it to alternating heat and cold, spraying it with natural and synthetic pheromones. All this took place over the course of less than twenty-four hours and none of it elicited any response. Yet for the next three weeks, footage of the alien ruled the airwaves and internet. Theories, speculation, wild guesses. No one knew where the alien came from or what its purpose was, but everyone wanted to talk about it.

For three weeks. By the time a full month had passed and the creature had done nothing but lie immobile, entrenched in the Iowa countryside, the public’s interest had moved on to more pressing and exciting matters. Politicians resumed campaigning. Movies whose release dates had been postponed arrived in theaters. The alien had crashed two days before pitchers and catchers reported for Major League Baseball’s spring training; Opening Day wasn’t even delayed.

#

Leland was waiting for her when Anna got home from the rock gym, sitting in the easy chair in the living room, staring at the door like a parent whose kid had broken curfew. He’d gotten permission from his landlord to break the lease of his studio apartment and moved into her more spacious place two weeks after Anna found out she was pregnant. It still unnerved her to come home to an apartment that wasn’t empty; she hadn’t had a roommate since her sophomore year of college.

“Hey,” she said, “everything alright?” She knew from the look in his eyes it wasn’t, and quickly racked her brain for what Leland could be mad about, but came up with nothing.

“Were you just rock climbing?”

Her harness was slung over her left arm, and in her hand were her climbing shoes. She lifted them so he could see. “Yup.”

“I — Do you think …?” he hesitated, stumbled over his words. Anna still wasn’t sure what was wrong, what he was trying to say. Finally, he just blurted, “Is that okay for the baby?”

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, and glanced down at her stomach, where a slight bump was just beginning to show. Four months along. “Yes, it’s fine. I looked it up.”

“But what if you fell?”

“A: if I fell, I’d be caught by my harness, and B: did you not consider this before? If I fell when I wasn’t pregnant it was no big deal?”

“That’s not what I mean.” He seemed about to say something else, but stopped himself, took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

She knew from the look in his eyes it wasn’t, and quickly racked her brain for what Leland could be mad about, but came up with nothing.

“Can we not talk about this now?” Anna asked. “I’m starving.”

“Yeah, of course,” Leland relented, shaking his head as if to dismiss his annoyance. “Let’s eat. Pasta okay? I’ll put water on.”

They prepared dinner together, sharing the banalities of their days: class and thesis research for Anna, lab work for Leland, analyzing the potential for bacteria and other microorganisms to survive in vacuum. Research that had been interesting before, but took on more importance with the arrival of the alien, which must have traveled for who knew how long and who knew how far without any sort of ship or suit. A working theory was that it was itself a sort of massive bacterium. There were murmurings around Leland’s lab that some of them would be picked to study the creature. Leland told Anna he wouldn’t go, that he’d work everything around her and the baby.

She didn’t say anything, but Anna could hardly believe Leland would pass up the opportunity. It would be like if someone discovered living ivory-billed woodpeckers or great auks or dodos. She would leap at the chance to see them, to study them.

“You know, I’m only four months along,” she said. “Barely out of the first trimester.” Let it hang out there. He could take it however he wanted.

“Yeah, but I don’t know when we’d actually go. If it was tomorrow, sure, but if it’s around the due date or after the baby’s here, then nope.”

Anna exhaled, and realized she’d been holding her breath. Suddenly the apartment felt too small. Could the table they ate at accommodate a highchair? Would the baby’s crib go in their bedroom? She stared across the table at Leland calmly forking rotini into his mouth. How had this happened?

#

The next thing Anna knew, she was giving birth. One minute she was living her life, working out, meeting with her thesis advisor, birding and seeing movies and going out for dinner, and the next she was in a hospital with her feet in stirrups and doctors exhorting her to push. She pushed and screamed and everything happened in a blur. Then she was holding her daughter, a wrinkly little peanut wrapped in a yellow blanket and cap. Little Meagan. People say it about all babies, but Anna really did think she was beautiful. She hoped that she slept easily, though, because Anna had work to do on her thesis, and knew she wouldn’t be able to get into the field for a while.

#

At twelve weeks, Meagan only slept about three hours at a time — if Anna and Leland were lucky. And when Meagan was sleeping, so was Anna. Leland took a month off work, but then was back at it, even beginning to discuss taking a trip to the alien, while Anna spent her days hoping the baby would sleep. She had no time for her own coursework or writing, certainly no time for fieldwork or even casual birding. In the months since Meagan was born, Anna hadn’t seen any birds aside from the sparrows and starlings that pecked around the yards and flitted among the trees she could see from the apartment windows.

She pushed and screamed and everything happened in a blur.

On a warm but breezy Saturday, while Leland stayed home with Meagan — who always seemed to sleep more soundly when he was alone with her, Anna thought — Anna met her advisor for coffee and a bagel.

“I completely understand,” Professor Hallett said, cinnamon-raisin bagel in hand. “I want to let you know that right off the bat. Things happen. Not everyone can complete their graduate studies on the same timeline. Totally understandable.”

“I’m not dropping out,” Anna said. “This is just a hiatus. Once Meagan’s a little older, we can put her in daycare a couple days a week, and then once she starts school …”

“Of course.”

They sat awkwardly for a few moments, studiedly sipping their coffee and nibbling their bagels until a beep came from Professor Hallett’s pocket and he dug it out. As he looked at the screen his face burst into happy surprise. “Someone’s reporting a wood stork.”

“Really?” It wasn’t impossible — though they were generally subtropical birds, they did sometimes get blown off-course — but highly unlikely.

Professor Hallett was already standing, brushing bagel crumbs from the front of his shirt. “You’ll come see it, right? You have to.”

Jittery with the combination of caffeine and excitement, Anna nervously tapped her foot and ran her tongue along the back of her teeth. Yes, going to see the stork with Professor Hallett would keep her away from home for longer than she’d anticipated. But Leland could watch Meagan for a little while longer. This was a real life-list bird. How many times did you get the chance to see a wood stork in Ithaca, New York?

“Let’s go,” she said, following her advisor to their bikes, and pedaling off after him. The breeze had picked up and kept amplifying as they rode, so that by the time they reached the marsh where the bird had been spotted she was having trouble riding in a straight line and noticed Professor Hallett wobbling as well. When Anna took off her helmet, her hair blew wildly around her face until she hastily tied it back with a rubber band she had in her backpack.

“You’ll come see it, right? You have to.”

Leaning into the wind, she and Professor Hallett made their way to an already sizeable group of people standing behind scopes or holding binoculars to their faces. They followed pointing fingers until they saw the neck and head protruding from tall grass about a hundred yards into the marsh. Anna watched the bird strut back and forth, poke its beak into the mud, for maybe fifteen minutes. Hardly any time at all.

“Guess we know how it got blown up here,” someone called above the wind. Not the best form — shouting like that could scare the bird, and she’d even turned her phone off in case an errant ringtone did the same — but the wind was so loud it was unlikely the stork could hear them. Minutes later, it was ruined anyway when a torrential rain suddenly began to fall. The bird lifted from the ground with strong flaps of its wings and flew directly away from the birders as it sought shelter from the downpour. It hardly needed to; within thirty seconds the rain had passed. Anna looked up and could see the dark cloud streaking across the sky to the west.

“Bizarre,” she whispered to herself as someone else said the same word louder. Though the rain had passed, she was soaked, and the stork was gone anyway. She said her goodbyes to Professor Hallett, promised she’d be in touch soon, back to school before he knew it, and headed home.

“Thank God you’re okay,” Leland said as she walked through the door. Meagan lay in her playpen behind him, gumming a stuffed owl. Leland registered the look on Anna’s face. “You didn’t hear the news, I guess. I tried calling you, but it went right to voicemail.”

“I was birding. There was a wood stork. Upstate New York hasn’t seen a wood stork in a good —”

“Let’s put on the TV,” Leland interrupted. “The alien’s doing something.”

Hazy blue gas partially obscured the alien from view of the cameras, but it was clear that the gas was blasting upwards at a tremendous speed. Up into space, spraying wildly as the planet rotated and orbited. Meanwhile, debris and dark smoky air rushed toward the creature, as if it was taking huge gasping breaths of the carbon-heavy atmosphere. As she watched, Anna thought she saw a dingy gray bird — probably a pigeon — pulled by, flapping futilely against the pull of the creature’s inhalations.

“God,” Anna said to no one in particular, “if it keeps up at this rate, this thing may actually clean up the air.”

“Let’s put on the TV,” Leland interrupted. “The alien’s doing something.”

“It’s like a cross between a fish and a volcano,” Leland remarked, and Anna chuckled. “Should Meagan see this?” he continued, looking at their daughter. “For historical reasons?”

“I sincerely doubt she’ll remember. Besides, we don’t know if this is good or bad. For all we know, this thing is just biding its time before it telepathically enslaves all of us. Probably with that mind control gas it’s pissing out.”

After a few moments of silence, she turned and looked at Leland. He was staring at her like he had no idea who she was. On the TV a reporter announced that no one had anything to announce.

#

Amazingly, Leland had just gotten home from a two-week stint studying the alien’s emissions when the second one crashed next to it, shifting its course like the first, and confounding any attempts to track it. If Leland had been there, he would have died from the shock wave or the subsequent tremors along with everyone else studying the creature. Even with an evacuation occurring, they hadn’t been able to get far enough away in time. And yet the first alien hadn’t been injured, hadn’t even budged from its spot. The only sign that anything had changed was that the gas had stopped.

If it wasn’t for Meagan’s third birthday, Leland would’ve stayed to finish up some work. He hugged and kissed his daughter profusely as they watched the news, telling her over and over how lucky he was, how she’d saved him.

When he wasn’t glued to their daughter, he was glued to the TV, examining the helicopter shots of the devastation as if he would be able to find his missing colleagues in the rubble from hundreds of miles away.

Reporters had started referring to the second alien the first one’s “mate,” and Meagan must have picked up on it.

“Do they love each other?” she asked one day from her spot on the couch next to Leland. “Are they married?”

“Animals don’t get married,” Anna said. “They don’t really love like people do.”

Simultaneously, Leland said, “Maybe.”

Anna and Leland looked at each other, then down at their daughter. Anna could really see the both of them in her; she had Anna’s shiny hair, so dark it was almost black, and her almond eyes. But she had Leland’s babyish cheeks and round chin and toothy smile. She also had his last name.

“There’s no way to really know, sweetie,” Leland said.

Anna agreed. “Love is a mystery.”

#

“I’m just saying it would be amazing, I’m not saying I’m going to go do it tomorrow,” Anna said. But she could tell by the look on Leland’s face that even discussing it made him uncomfortable.

“How could you even want to be so close to that thing? You saw what happened to everyone from the lab. If I hadn’t come home …”

“But you did, and you’re fine, and what are the chances of a third alien landing? It’s been two years and all they do is sit there and suck in dirty air.”

“Do you hear yourself? Who’s to say they won’t suck you in too?”

“There’s birds living up there. Whole ecosystems on these things. It’s not like it was at the beginning. Besides, there’s special equipment.” She waved the pamphlet at him, the one Professor Hallett had left in her campus mailbox. Who knew when he left it, or why he left a paper copy instead of emailing; she only checked the box monthly these days, at best.

“How could you even want to be so close to that thing?”

Nominally, she was still a student, but she wasn’t sure how long they’d let her keep up the charade. At least Meagan would be starting kindergarten in the fall, and then Anna would have time to get back to studying. To reading and writing and maybe even the occasional fieldwork. Like examining a newly formed habitat. A habitat that she was uniquely qualified to get to, due to her years of experience rock climbing. It would be a few weeks at most. Why couldn’t Leland grasp that?

“And if one of the aliens decides to get up and move?” Leland asked, voice rising. “What happens then?”

“They fly away.”

“You’re not a bird, Anna.”

She glanced at the closed door to Meagan’s room, hoped her daughter was still napping. In her mind’s eye, she pictured the future therapy sessions, Meagan holding forth about the pain of listening to her parents argue. Thinking it was about her.

“Lee,” she said as calmly as possible, “I’m just saying it would be an incredible opportunity. It could potentially be huge for my career. It’s important to me.”

“And your daughter?” He hissed this. At least he was being quieter.

“You’re allowed to have your career,” Anna said. “I should be allowed to have mine. You knew that when you knocked me up.”

Leland looked like she’d just punched him in the stomach. Surprised, angry, hurt. He turned and walked into their bedroom and quietly shut the door. Anna watching him go, wished he had stomped and slammed.

#

It took a lot more arguing, cajoling, bartering — Anna went up to the line of outright begging, but refused to cross — but finally, Leland came around. One week away. A grand return to fieldwork studying the new habitat atop the aliens, and then a return to the more sedate environs of Ithaca.

Not the most pleasant memories, but it was worth it, and Anna couldn’t help smiling as she hung off the side of the first alien. The creature’s craggy skin was as hard as rock, and it didn’t appear that anything that was done to it affected it. When the U.S. military — and eventually other militaries that were called in to help — had attempted to destroy the creature, they couldn’t even elicit a response, let alone cut through the skin. Flakes fell off or could be chipped away, but it was like trying to wear down Mount Everest with a piece of sandpaper. Which made sense, Anna thought. Flying through space like it did, the alien had to be basically a living asteroid. Albeit one that seemed to have an idea of where it wanted to go.

The creature’s craggy skin was as hard as rock, and it didn’t appear that anything that was done to it affected it.

Wind caused by the aliens’ breathing gusted around her and whipped a strand of hair that had escaped her helmet across her eyes. In a few more feet, she’d be at a good wide outcropping, a convenient place to tuck the hair back under and rest for a minute while she waited for others to climb up. Professor Hallett and a couple of younger grad students that Anna didn’t recognize had taken a helicopter to the top of the alien. Anna and a student from the University of Texas, meanwhile, climbed up the side of the creature to examine some of the lower bird colonies, nests established a couple hundred yards up the side of the mountainous alien.

Anna reached the lip of the ledge and hoisted herself up and over, sliding on her knees away from the edge and letting out a puff of held breath. From her compact backpack, she retrieved a water bottle and took a swig while gazing at the horizon. She could see for miles across the flat terrain, but the flatness was the problem — there was nothing to see. Much more interesting to examine the ledge. Though nothing was close to where she sat, there was a nest about fifteen yards away. No birds there at the moment, but based on the look of the nest and the raptors she’d spotted in the area she guessed it was either a sharp-shinned or red-shouldered hawk. The animals had acclimated to the aliens well. So had the people, for that matter. When it first crashed to Earth, Anna never would have imagined that one day she would be scaling the side of the thing.

Never one to be concerned about vertigo, she peeked over the edge to check her companion’s progress. Ollie, the UT guy, was still making his way up, tentatively poking and prodding at the alien’s skin with his fingers and the toes of his shoes, double- and triple-checking his carabiner along the rope path that Anna had established. She scooted back and leaned against the side of the alien to wait. She’d always been a fast climber. On the ground Ollie had joked about whether he should go first, since he was a couple years younger, and climbed more regularly than Anna had been able to since Meagan was born. Anna had smiled politely, but went first.

The one time she’d convinced Leland to climb with her — just their fourth or fifth date; way before Meagan — she’d left him far behind too, though she hadn’t intended to. That was inside at the gym, so it wasn’t like it was dangerous, but she still felt bad, worried that she’d emasculated him. He acted like he wasn’t hurt, but that was the last time he’d climbed.

She was shaken out of her reverie by Ollie, who called over to her as his head crested the ledge’s lip. “Okay, this is weird.”

Anna cocked her head, raised an eyebrow. Yes, it was weird to be climbing up the side of a giant alien, but Ollie surely was talking about something else.

He chuckled. “Earth to Anna. Seriously, you didn’t notice?”

And as he said it, she did. She could hear him clearly and he wasn’t raising his voice. The wind had stopped.

#

There’d been no danger when the wind stopped. Anna and Ollie had examined the nest on the ledge, planted a tiny camera, and climbed back down. Easy peasy. Still, when she got to the ground and saw the missed calls from Leland, she told him that she hadn’t answered her phone because she’d been in a meeting. As far as he knew, she hadn’t gotten within a quarter mile of the aliens.

She was shaken out of her reverie by Ollie, who called over to her as his head crested the ledge’s lip. “Okay, this is weird.”

They had stopped breathing, but it was hard to say they had died. For three months after landing, the first hadn’t done anything until it started emitting gas. The second hadn’t even done that. So what made this different? Tough to say, but Anna felt it. When she had sat on the side of the alien, when she had climbed up then down it, something was different. By the time she reached the ground, she knew that a big change had just occurred, but couldn’t say why she felt that way or what it was. Just one of those feelings.

That both aliens had ceased breathing simultaneously seemed to her an ill omen. It wasn’t a natural winding down of a life, but an abrupt halt. Not death by natural causes, but something planned. Suicide or sacrifice. Not that anyone knew for sure. It was just her opinion. Just one of those feelings.

Like the feeling that Leland was gearing up for something big, that he’d been stewing on something the entire time she’d been gone, was working up to a big pronouncement now that she was home. Leaving her, she assumed. They had never technically married, though maybe they were by common law. She wasn’t certain. But she’d been with Leland for long enough that she could tell when something wasn’t right with him. Reticent when they spoke, disengaged when they had sex, which Anna generally had to initiate. It finally looked like Anna would graduate, and she had made clear she would immediately start looking for work. He hadn’t even broached the possibility that her job would take her somewhere else. He was going to leave her, sue for custody of Meagan. Probably win. Just one of those feelings.

Leland came out of Meagan’s room and into the living room, where Anna was sitting on the couch, the TV on but her tablet on her lap, open to a study on pelagic migratory birds. He sat next to her.

“Can we talk?”

Anna sighed inwardly but nodded, turned off the TV, put aside the paper, and turned herself to face him. Resigned to whatever would happen, steeling herself for the worst.

He was going to leave her, sue for custody of Meagan. Probably win.

Leland took a deep breath, looked into her eyes, and said, “I want to make this work.”

Anna realized she was holding her breath and she let it out in a burst that was almost a laugh.

“We’re a good couple,” Leland went on. “At least, we can be. We have been. I know things haven’t been great recently. But for Meagan, and for ourselves, I think we can make this work.”

She wasn’t sure what to think, had no clue how to react. Memories of their good times flooded her mind: their first date, parties from before they had a kid, the day Meagan was born, sleeping together the night before he left to study the aliens. But the bad times flooded in too: arguing over why he didn’t want her to go study the aliens, over whether they should send Meagan to pre-school or have Anna watch her for one more year, over why she didn’t want to just get married already.

“I love you, Leland,” she said. “We can make this work.” And she really did think they could. Just one of those feelings.

#

Meagan was finally old enough to go birding, and stay quiet enough that it wouldn’t scare away all the birds. Barely, but she was. Anna made it a game and a bribe; stay quiet, stay still, keep count of how many birds we see, and on the way home we’ll go to McDonald’s and get a Happy Meal and an ice cream. But Anna felt it was important to bring her daughter on these trips. Not just so she could share what she loved, but so Meagan would grow up with an appreciation for the natural world, for everything that surrounded her and made life beautiful. Watching her daughter learn about the world made Anna feel like she was experiencing it all anew as well. She wanted to soak up as many experiences together as they could. And, she sadly admitted, because who knew how long some of the bird species had before they went extinct. For a brief period it had seemed as if the pollution-guzzling aliens might buy the planet a reprieve, but now that they had died and stopped filtering the air, atmospheric carbon levels were rapidly rising again. It almost made Anna wish another one would come crashing down. Not, however, if it meant she’d get pregnant again; one kid was perfect for her.

Not that Leland would mind, she thought. Months had passed, and she and Leland were working on repairing their relationship. Date nights and long talks and compromising with each other. So far, as best Anna could tell, it was working.

“Have fun out there,” Leland had said when she and Meagan left that morning, and he really was saying it to both of them, not just their daughter. “I’ll miss you.” When was the last time he’d said that? And she smiled and said she’d miss him too.

A woodpecker knocked on a tree trunk somewhere in the distance, the hollow noise of its search for larvae echoing through the woods. She turned to explain this example of the circle of life to Meagan — the trees dying, the larvae eating the dead wood, the woodpeckers eating the larvae, the woodpecker droppings fertilizing new trees — but Meagan interrupted her before she even got a chance to speak.

“Mom, look,” she said, pointing at a dark lump on the ground. Anna took a few steps closer and saw that it was a dead starling, its black feathers still faintly iridescent and speckled with white. Though on a second look, she realized that some of the white spots were actually writhing blowfly maggots. Maybe an even better example of the circle of life that she could explain to her daughter.

So far, as best Anna could tell, it was working.

“What’s the bird doing?” Meagan asked.

Anna explained. The bird died somehow, and a male blowfly smelled the decaying flesh—sensed the chemicals, technically, but she was explaining to a six-year-old. It flew to the carcass, sent up a scent of its own, calling a female blowfly. The female came, the flies mated, the female laid eggs, and the parents died. Now the eggs had hatched and the babies — the maggots — would eat the bird. And then they would grow into adult blowflies themselves and fly off to find carcasses where they could lay their own eggs. It was gross in a way, she agreed with Meagan, but beautiful too. Death making life.

“Why do the parents die?”

“Well, blowflies — lots of bugs, really — only really live so they can reproduce. Make babies. That’s the most important thing in the world for them. Some of the organisms — the animals — Dad studies, you wouldn’t believe the things they’ve evolved to do, just so they can make babies. They can survive pretty much anywhere. Way underground, underwater, in poison …”

It hit her. One of those feelings. Everything she’d explained to her daughter coalescing in her own brain and she wondered why no one had thought of it before. Why people weren’t digging under the carcasses of the aliens.

She took Meagan’s hand. “We need to go home, honey. I need to talk to Dad.”

She had to tell him what she’d figured out. Because he might be able to tell someone who could do something about it. Because she was sure that if someone searched under the decaying bodies of the aliens they would find eggs. Maybe even larvae already. Slowly eating their way through the dying planet’s crust. Growing. She prayed they would be soft, maggoty. Their parents were indestructible.

Timothy Mudie has had fiction published or forthcoming in Lightspeed, Perihelion SF, Abyss & Apex, Electric Spec, and several other magazines and anthologies. In 2013, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives outside of Boston, where he works as an editor for a trade publisher.