Authors: Sean Platt,Johnny B. Truant
Tags: #Sci-Fi | Alien Invasion
Day One, Evening
Morristown, New Jersey
The drive to Morristown should have taken about an hour. It took nearly four.
In the van’s lush rear, the three teens lowered the seats to beds and slept. Despite it being just before three when they set out, Meyer wanted to sleep too. The day had been draining. He felt his body telling him to give up, lie down, and let whatever was going to happen, happen. The effort to fight the urge, even after all the thought and planning Meyer had given this moment, was enormous.
Piper stayed dutifully awake beside him, laying a comforting hand on Meyer’s arm as light bled from the day. With the sun down, everything seemed more peaceful despite the line of traffic — and, at the same time, much more ominous. They’d stopped just once, at another gas station, during a short stretch of clear road. The station had been deserted. The houses in the surrounding area were lit but graveyard silent. The feeling was one of waiting — as if those inside didn’t know what they’d face in the morning, but wouldn’t peek from their hidey holes in the meantime, just in case.
The station was, blessedly, fully automated and fully operational. Unlike the previous station (one of a dying breed; Meyer suspected the remaining gas station jobs existed solely to provide the neighborhood with a few extra paychecks), this one had no clerk — and therefore no one to rob. Payments were electronic; there was no cash on-premises. The foodmat inside was equally automated and light on provisions. In time, if things unfolded without peace prevailing, pirates would perhaps break into the foodmat and siphon gas from the station’s tanks. But for now, that wasn’t happening. And as Meyer topped off, he thought that this could be any night, anytime, anywhere.
But the highways were another story, and despite what he’d told Heather about surface roads, highways still seemed like the best way to travel. The van was well-stocked, but it wasn’t otherwise as end-of-the-world prepped as it should have been. It had tires that could be punctured, windows that could be broken, and plastic side panels that could be shot through. The freeway was crawling. But surface roads, as they looked into the shadowy and streetlight-lit neighborhoods beyond, looked dangerous.
They didn’t have far to go. Sleep, for the passengers, made time tick quickly. Meyer had his running thoughts, and Piper seemed to feel her only job (which she was happy to do) was to be by his side. The time spend was fine. They didn’t have an assigned flight time like commercial fliers. They wouldn’t have to go through security or even through the airport itself, small as it was. All that mattered was that they arrived whole, that the plane was still there, and that the pilot was ready to fly. And thanks to the still-functional cell network, he was able to confirm the second two just fine. As long as Morristown stayed peaceful, there was no reason for Nick to hop into the jet and fly off on his own. He was well paid, and despite the day’s events, money still seemed very much to matter.
There had been scant new information. The van’s radio had been on and tuned to a satellite news channel the entire trip, and as the evening had rolled on the station had taken to replaying the exact same half-hour loop over and over.
Ships were still approaching Earth, same as they’d been this afternoon.
The president was still urging calm.
NASA was still predicting an arrival in approximately five days.
And the special interview guest — a man named Bertrand Delacroix, who sounded like a conspiracy nut to Meyer but who apparently had some sort of legit credentials — was still saying that if not for the public availability of the Astral app, the government would be covering all of this up. They were forthcoming now, he scoffed, because there was no way to lie. Somehow this was good news, but Meyer could only intuit that from Bertrand Delacroix’s tone of voice, and the interviewer’s reaction.
Ten miles from Morristown, Piper reached over and touched the radio, turning it to music.
“That’s enough of that,” she said.
“We need to know what’s happening, Piper.”
“We know it. Like six or seven times, we know it by now.”
“Something might change.”
But Piper wasn’t listening. He’d thought she’d fallen asleep, and now she closed her eyes and looked it. She took his hand. He’d had them folded in his lap for most of the trip but had remained sitting in the driver’s seat just in case a move to manual proved necessary. So far, it hadn’t. A line of traffic was a line of traffic, and everyone had to wait their turn. The autocar could do that much just fine.
“It’s crazy to think there’s still music, isn’t it?” Piper said.
“On the radio?”
“In the world.” She sighed. Piper loved music and was much more up on trends than Heather ever had been. It was one of the things Lila loved about her stepmother, and a tiny source of jealousy with Heather. “All that’s happened, all this fear and fighting, and someone is still out there playing music.”
“I’m sure it’s programmed.”
She sighed, not wanting to hear him.
Meyer shook his head at the line of traffic. “We’re almost there. I’m going to be so glad to get out of this van.”
“After all the time you spent stocking it?”
“The Axis Mundi is better stocked than the van.”
“Why do you call it ‘Axis Mundi’? The ranch, I mean.”
Meyer considered explaining, but despite her spiritual bearing, he felt that Piper didn’t understand any of the spirituality that actually mattered. She didn’t participate in the ceremonies. She hadn’t seen Mother Ayahuasca. He didn’t resent her for it, and she didn’t resent him, but it robbed them of common ground. Her parents had been religious and believed in a bearded savior in the sky. Meyer, on the other hand, had more or less predicted everything that had happened today. It was a decisive victory, he thought, but he wouldn’t waste breath on explanation. Some places were holy. That and the fact that he’d wanted one of his own was all she needed to know.
“Why are we doing this, Meyer?”
“Going to Morristown?”
“Going to Vail. Shouldn’t we stay put? We don’t even know anything yet.”
. It was the same thing Heather had said. He hadn’t been able to reach her again due to the overcrowded network, but if he had, he’d conference the two women so they could be ridiculous and shortsighted together.
“We know enough.”
know that nobody else knows?”
Piper looked at him with those huge blue eyes. It was rhetorical, basically a joke. But he’d already known enough to prepare, and could still feel the puzzle assembling somewhere inside. He couldn’t see it, but you didn’t need to see a black hole to feel its pull.
They needed to be in Colorado when it happened, whatever “it” was. That was the only safe place. If this had only waited another few months, they’d have been living there already.
they could have stayed put.
they could have bunkered down and kept off the roads. But staying in New York — the city in which all sorts of bad shit always happened first — just because they hadn’t had time yet to make their big move? That was just stupid.
“We’re almost there.” Meyer looked out across the sea of brake lights. He patted her hand to soothe any possible reproach he might be giving off without intention. Then he gave her a forced smile, and she smiled back. He felt something release inside. Piper had that effect on people. Even Heather, who would have liked very much to hate her, but couldn’t manage to no matter how hard she tried.
“And we can just fly away.”
Meyer nodded. “One of the perks of owning your own plane.”
Despite the awkwardness of the space between them, Piper pulled Meyer’s arm toward her enough to lean uncomfortably atop it. They looked like a stretched-out picture of lovers side-by-side at a romantic movie, with the backs of cars on the big screen.
Meyer reached out and poked the radio. They were approaching the exit. Once off the expressway, everything would be faster.
“I just want to check before we get there,” Meyer said.
The radio program had changed. Apparently, there was fresh news after all. But none of the reports had to do with Astral or the ships or anything else. It had to do with government preparations and the people’s safety.
Meyer listened. He heard the announcement that made him shout just as the airport came into sight, the terminal and gate slowly being surrounded by flashing blue and red lights.
Trevor jerked awake in the back seat. He blinked. “What? What’s wrong?”
“The FAA just grounded all flights,” said Meyer, pinching the bridge of his nose. “We’re a half hour too late.”
Day Two, Morning
Piper woke with a soft vibration under her head. At first she didn’t know what it was.
She’d been having a dream where she was on a roller coaster with Meyer’s ex-wife. Heather was wearing an outrageous red dress that turned her average-size boobs into respectable and decidedly Victorian-era cleavage. It wasn’t the kind of thing Heather wore in her lesser comedy shows and certainly not in any movie (released by Meyer’s Fable Studio or otherwise) that Piper had ever seen.
They’d been climbing a hill for most of the dream, a half-minute trip stretching to hours in the way time elongates like taffy inside the reverie of sleep. The dream’s only common thread from beginning to end was Piper’s ever-mounting terror. She’d woken just as they’d gone over the first hill’s top. The last thing Heather said before tipping down was,
Hang on tight, baby. It gets bumpy from here
Then Piper was awake, vibration under her head, and no real awareness (for the first few moments, anyway) of where she was. For a crazy second, she was sure Meyer’s ex was still around. Only Heather Hawthorne would stick a running vibrator under a sleeping girl’s head as a gag.
She blinked, yawned, and rolled over to see Meyer still behind the wheel. He wasn’t holding it, though, and his feet weren’t on the manual pedals. The van was on auto, apparently able to handle the light traffic ahead. He’d scooted the JetVan’s luxurious leather seat back a foot and turned it slightly into the cabin. The radio was tuned to a whisper, and Meyer was tapping around on his tablet.
“Have you been up all night?” she said.
“I thought we might need to run someone over.”
Piper assumed he was referring to the need to go manual in a moment’s notice should some pedestrian or another require running down. She wasn’t sure who that unlucky pedestrian might be (just for example) or whether Meyer was joking. He looked serious enough, his head mostly down, giving her greeting lip service without moving focus from his tablet.
“Where are we?”
“Pennsylvania.” He nodded toward the window, and what seemed to still be nighttime. A glance at the console clock showed it to be 6:23 a.m. “America the beautiful. Should I wake the kids to show them what fields look like? They look the same in the dark as they do in the light, more or less.”
Piper looked into the back of the van. With the blinds closed, it was easy to believe the vehicle’s name — to see it as more jet than van, and to imagine they’d somehow reached the Gulfstream after all. Trevor was closest, his head canted sideways to lean against the window, his eyes closed and his large black eyebrows less troubled-looking than they’d always seemed lately. Lila and Raj were asleep at the very back, past the faux-marble console, in a bench seat, leaning against each other like two poles in a teepee. Piper wasn’t sure she liked that. They needed each other, yes. But every mile farther they drove from Raj’s family in New York was one degree more difficult it would be for Lila to give him up. The way she was clinging to him now, the idea of sending Raj home felt like ripping a cherished teddy bear from Lila’s arms.
“Where in Pennsylvania?”
“Not toward New York.”
Meyer looked up at Piper and gave her the look that had made him his fortune. Meyer Dempsey seldom wanted something he didn’t eventually get. Including Piper, who’d only meant to use Consensus rather than meet (or marry) the man who’d created it — a girl who’d had a simple goal of crowdfunding her tiny design project rather than partnering with the handsome entrepreneur behind it, and become a reluctant fashion mogul.