The First Cloud After

We landed somewhere in the desert. At least that’s what I thought. It was very possible the entirety of the lush and bustling world we left behind was reduced to a barren snow globe filled with dust. 

Either way, we had walked for days and only seen endless sand in each direction. No life. No structure. Not even garbage other than the wrappers of our dwindling supply of mobile meals we threw into the wind after we scarfed them down like starving seagulls. 

The only thing this place was a good setting for was to die. That’s exactly what we decided to do on the third day of our desert wander.

The box marked In Case of Emergency was the only non-food item we took with us from our vessel. We called the bright orange pills which laid inside the box under a thick sheet of glass “escape pods.”

They were suicide pills. We were instructed before our exit from Earth that they were a last-ditch option to end it all peacefully should our situation become hopeless. The situation had long been hopeless, but we fought off the thirst for death out of spiteful pride. 

As the leader, it was my job to read the instructions out loud to the group. I was ready to read until I caught a glimpse of myself in a reflection on the glass of the box. The warped image of myself gave me a reminder of who I once was. There hadn’t been a single mirror in our shuttle so I hadn’t seen myself in years.

The long mane of jet black hair maintained had been reduced to a matted flat top of faded gray. My round, boyish face had morphed into an angular hatchet, carved deep with the lines of age. 

I was still the best-looking person in the group. It was on the inside that I was ugly, specifically my brain.

Our group of five was chosen for our differences.  One was missing both arms. One was blind. One was covered from head to toe in scars from burns which had also taken her legs and one had a stutter so bad, she could barely hold a conversation. Me, I had brain disorder similar to Tourette’s, but not the kind lampooned in shitty comedy movies. The kind where your body burst out in embarrassing, uncontrollable, spastic movements and where your brain sometimes receives the messages of random words you want to blurt out.

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. There went the disorder again.

Our government told us that we were part of an exclusive, life-saving mission. Earth was dying, and the five of us were going to set sail into the universe in hopes of finding a new habitable planet where life could relocate and/or intelligent life which could help us. They chose our ragtag group to show all the different kinds of beauty of the human body. Our mission would take us away from Earth for eight years like a fishing hook in a dark lake and then pull us back.

That charade fell apart a few weeks in when an electrical storm altered our ship’s computer system and gave us access to all the documents we weren’t supposed to see. Turns out we were an intergalactic freakshow. Our government cast us out blindly into the void, hoping that some other beings might find us and take pity on us for our flaws and decide to help out a dying Earth. We were basically our planet’s Hail Mary attempt at getting a pity fuck.

Morale for the rest of our voyage was abysmal. The five of us sat around masturbating, eating bad freeze-dried food, reading the same books over and over again and watching each other slowly deteriorate. I think we all hoped someone would eventually go The Shining and axe everyone else, but no one had the guts to. 

We crash landed on Earth eight years later with hopes that we would find it in a better state than we left it. That didn’t seem to be the case. Time for the “escape capsules.”

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. The four words rang in my head before I started reading the directions for the suicide pills.

“To begin the process of accessing your cyanide capsules, please speak what your situation is into the speaker to the right of the glass. The explanation has a minimum of three minutes time.”

“What t…t..t…….the….the…the fuck…fuck…fuck?” Drea interrupted my reading. 

“We have to explain why we want to kill ourselves?” Rex asked as a stiff wind knocked his blackout glasses up onto his forehead.

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. 

“I can give it a try, I guess. It says it needs background on the entire situation, so I will start at the beginning. It will be like the opening crawls in the Star Wars movies.”

I let out a little laugh and looked around the group to see if anyone else was pleased with my joke. Nope.

“Well…here goes…”

I hit a red button below the speaker I was supposed to talk into. A red LED light came to life. I cleared my throat.

“I don’t even really know how to describe them. Aliens? They claimed to be aliens, but no one ever confirmed that. We couldn’t communicate with them. We didn’t share the same language.”

“J…j…j…u…ju…..ust, call em…a….a…liens,” Drea butted in.

“But here’s the thing, we didn’t even know what the aliens looked like. They took out all satellite communication as soon as they landed. We were reduced to in-person communication and local government. All the information we got was word-of-mouth from other people who would claim the aliens had taken over a new country, or city, but none of us in this group ever saw a single one in the flesh before we left on our mission. Supposedly they were searching everywhere they could for resources, treating us as you would a line of ants you found on your kitchen counter. They weren’t exactly exterminating us, instead harvesting our land for resources with zero regard for whatever was in the way. Now, we are back, and it looks like they accomplished their mission, and we simply want to die.”

I let out an exhale and hit the red button again.

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. 

The glass over the pills spread open, freeing our orange escape pods.

I passed a pill out to each member of the group.

“Anyone have a change of heart?” I asked.

No one spoke.

I threw back my pill, dry. I saw the rest of the crew do the same. I gave everyone one long, last look before everything went black.

Heaven? No. The same barren desert I left when took the pill, but dark, the sand cold.

I saw my comrades all around me. They checked their bodies and touched their faces. All looked horrified to be alive.

“NO!” I heard Drea cry out.

The world was not all dark. A city which looked like it was made of tightly-bunched stars radiated off in the distance. 

“Can’t even properly kill myself,” Drea muttered next to me.

I looked over to Drea as she rose to her feet, my jaw dropped. 

“What?” Drea asked.

“Your stutter is gone,” I said.

I looked over to Hank, our friend who had traveled to the edge of the universe and back without arms and I saw two sinewy limbs jutting out of his shoulders. He petted his newfound appendages over and over again.

Next to Hank was Rex. I watched as he ripped off his blackout shades.

“I had no idea you were so young Danny,” Rex said to me. 

I smiled for real, for the first time in years. I felt a warmth inside me burn through my body and give me a false sense of heat, like a quick shot of whiskey.

The perpetual struggle of fatigue which had dominated my body for so long seemed to be gone, but I was not yet sure if the pill had given me the gift it appeared to give the rest of the crew. 

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. Maybe the elixir wasn’t magic for me? The brain disorder remained.

I didn’t have anymore time to think.

“Look at this!” the voice of Helen rang out in a high-pitched tone I had never heard her use.

I couldn’t see Helen at first, she didn’t appear to be in our cluster in the sand, but then I heard her voice again.

“Up here.”

I followed Helen’s voice into the sky, where she hovered above us in her wheelchair, about five feet off the ground. Helen’s legs had not returned, but her scars were gone and she floated like a feather. 

It was time for me to give myself the ultimate test to see if the pill had solved my problems. Holding my breathe for 10 seconds was a surefire way to trigger my disorder and have my entire neck tense up until my head shifted slowly from side to side. I sucked in a breath and waited.

10 seconds passed. Then 15. Then 20. Then 30. No lock up. My neck was slack, fluid. I sucked in a breath and looked off at the city in the distance. I suddenly wanted to go there.

There were no mile markers to track our progress on making it to the city, just the growing size of the lights as we got closer and closer until they almost blinded you when you looked at them too long. They looked about a mile out when Helen swooped down from her glide and tapped me on the shoulder.

“I think I know where we are going,” Helen yelled into my ear.

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. 

Helen pointed to a towering string of lights off in the distance which took the jagged shape of the top of a pineapple.

“See the palm tree?” Helen asked me.

She was right. The lights looked more like a palm tree than a pineapple.

“We are coming up on Dubai,” Helen went on. “That’s the hotel they built there to look like a palm tree.”

I had seen the hotel on the Internet years ago. I had no idea if our destination being Dubai was a good or a bad thing. Our years of toiling in painful stagnation had stripped things of the “good” and the “bad,” they were mostly just “things.”

A thing I quickly labeled as “bad,” sped by our caravan in the near darkness. A tangle of light and matter, it went by so fast that I didn’t have the slightest idea what it looked like. I just knew the presence felt powerful. 

All of us turned around and followed the wind of whatever had flown past us. Resting about 20 yards in front of us in the desert was a dark clump of matter wrapped in small beads of white light which looked very similar to the city we were walking towards. The thing gave off a rumbling sound which sounded like the idling engine of a semi truck periodically interrupted by the high-pitched squeal of a baby. 

“What the hell is that?” Drea whispered in my ear. 

I felt a wave of energy rip off the thing like a roll of thunder. I looked at it long enough to focus in on what I was actually looking at. The thing appeared to be a ball of thick, hardened skin, like that of a desert lizard, pegged by a countless amount of tiny legs, the kind you would see on a centipede. It had its back to us at the moment, a thick spine pulled the scaly skin tight. It took long breaths in and out wrapped in what looked like giant golden Christmas lights. The kind you would usually see wrapped around a suburban dream home on a frosty December night. 

“What the hell is that?”

Drea stopped when the thing started to turn on its collection of little legs until it looked back at us with two saucer eyes of bright yellow set above a long, thin stinger of a nose and a jagged set of only bottom teeth which jutted out from a sloppy mouth. The thing looked like the nightmarish marriage of my five least favorite animals which had been thrown into a microwave and zapped until it was the size of a Jeep.

Was this one of the aliens which had stripped our world bare and left us wanting to die? Just the sight of the it made me wish that pill had worked instead of just eliminating the physical side of my disorder. Not locking up my neck certainly wasn’t going to stop that thing from eating me like a Buffalo wing if it wanted to.

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. 

There were those four words flashed in my mind again and again until the alien (let’s just call it that out of convenience) started to scramble towards us, it’s little legs making our sand floor shudder with unnerving, manic rumble. I ran. I ran towards the city, praying those lights were really Dubai and not just a million of those toothy things which chased us crunched together like a bee hive. 

I could smell the thing’s sweet and sour breath huffing and puffing in my direction as my legs churned through the heavy sand. The whole thing probably looked comical to the alien, like a snail pathetically trying to escape from a hungry toad on a beach.

My lungs burned, the muscles in my legs throbbed. I almost welcomed the searing pain I knew would come from behind at any moment, but it didn’t. I instead felt myself lift up off the ground, until my legs were dangling limply in the air the way they would on a modern Six Flags-style roller coaster which straps you in from your shoulders.

I looked to my right and saw Helen’s cherubic grin beaming back at me. Her arms were wrapped tight around my torso.

A look below showed the lights of the alien shining at a safe distance, probably 50 feet below me. 

I looked back to Helen’s smile and saw the rest of the crew clinging to her back – Rex, Drea and Hank. They didn’t smile the way she did, they maintained looks of shocked relief.

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. 

Just as my heart was starting to slow back down, a cluster of lights rushed into the horizon behind us and darted towards us at a much greater speed than Helen seemed to be able to muster.

“We are just crossing into the start of the city, we’ll be at the hotel in a minute. I think I can shake it,” Helen yelled.. 

I looked back at the alien which had gained about 25 more yards on us. It was officially on our heels. 

I saw Rex flex himself up into a half-standing position on Helen’s back. He stared back at the alien with a hand flat across his brow as if he was blocking out a sun that wasn’t there.

“Just give me one more minute!” Helen screamed.

“We don’t have a minute!” Brea screamed from Helen’s back. 

I watched the alien flick a forked tongue at our crew and miss Rex’ face by just inches before it recoiled back into it’s mouth. 

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. 

The tongue was back again before I could take a breath. Rex was ready for it this time. I noticed he had the box of orange pills under an arm and a bright orange pill in one hand. I watched as he slapped the orange pill against the thing’s hot pink tongue as it whipped past his face. Rex ducked down before the tongue could lash him. 

The tongue retreated back into the alien’s mouth. I watched the monstrous face cinch up into a look of bitterness. It winced and started to fade off into the dark distance. 

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. 

“Oh my God,” I screamed back at Rex just as I felt us start to descend in the air. 

I looked in front of me and the well-lit hotel was right below us. Helen eased us on to the hotel’s roof. We came to a full stop next to an overflowing infinite pool which looked out over the twinkling city. 

The four of us who couldn’t fly stepped away from Helen. I watched Helen’s chest heave over and over again and saw sweat pour off her brow until she dove headfirst into the pool, sending a lapping wave off of the body of water and down the side of hotel where it tumbled hundreds of feet before it hit the dark, churning sea below. 

“So now what?” Drea broke the soundtrack of our heavy breathing. 

“Well…Rex started in, still struggling to breathe. “Once we are ready, I have something I need to share with everyone.”

We collected ourselves and turned our attention to Rex at a little table by the pool. He laid the box the orange pills came from in front of us, pulled the canister which housed the ones we hadn’t used yet and showed us a video screen. 

He hit play and digital words started to crawl across a dark screen. 

Once you take the first pill, wait five minutes and then press the red button to the right of this screen.

Rex hit the red button 

The screen came to life and digital words written white script filled up the black screen. 

Before you can proceed to the second dosage of pills, we would like you to each watch a video log which will update you on matters close to you which have taken place at home while you have been gone. The next screen will appear with a touch-screen option for each member of the crew. To access your video, simply place your thumbprint on the section of the screen where your name appears a 2-3-minute video will then play. It is recommended you watch the video in private as the scenes shown may be emotional. Once all videos have been watched and a short questionnaire has been answered, you may be allowed to proceed to the second dosage of pills. Thank you.

“Seeing what my shitball family was up to before the world turned to dust is only gonna make me want to kill myself more…stutter, or no stutter,” Drea said.

“Are we gonna draw straws to see who goes?” Helen asked.

I looked off past the infinity pool to the dark horizon and saw a few clusters of light gliding through the dark sky like fat, round 747s, headed in our direction. I figured they were more of the thing which had chased us to our perch.

“We might not even have time to die gracefully. “I’ll just go,” I said.

I pressed my thumb below my name on the screen as I walked away towards the pool with the box in my grasp. The screen slowly illuminated and showed an image I hadn’t seen in years – my on-again, off-again girlfriend Alexa. Just the sight of her sharp red hair, freckled cheeks and nose and toothy smile wobbled my jaw and threw me into wet sobs. 

Alexa and I had more ups and downs than a roller coaster when we were together, but the look of love and the full, softness of her face destroyed my heart. I wanted nothing more than to reach through the screen and hug her. 

Alexa’s face looked even more full than usual. Her rosy cheeks looked almost swollen, her breasts were pushed up against her neck.

“I don’t even know how to say this,” Alexa started in, tears rolling down onto her lips. “Just a few weeks after you left, I found out I was pregnant. I know. I always have the world’s worst timing. I called the mission control people back here and told them that I needed to talk to you, but they directed me to just take a video. I don’t know when, or if, it will even get to you.”

Alexa whimpered, shook and sobbed. 

“They’re twins. Girls. They’re due in September. I don’t know what else to tell you right now. I’m sorry.”

The screen went dark and then slowly started to fade in again. I heard the high-pitched cry of a baby before the screen lit up again. Once illuminated, I saw a tired-looking Alexa in front of the camera with a blonde baby in each arm. They stopped crying just before she started talking.

“I hope things are okay up there. I want you to meet your daughters…Autumn, and Rachel. Say hi to daddy,” Alexa said in a baby voice.

I watched as my two chubby daughters looked at the camera for fleeting seconds before starting to cry again. 

“They’re a little camera shy, cranky. They haven’t been sleeping much. We miss you. I hope these videos get to you,” Alexa said.

I wasn’t sure if I could watch anymore. I already imagined the world I was in now existing without these two sweet babies I had just met. I thought about Alexa on our best days and her smile being wiped from the Earth by that ugly thing that chased us to that rooftop. 

I looked out on the horizon and saw the three clusters of lights I was worried about earlier had moved into formation and were still headed in our direction, though a few hundred yards out still. I went back to the video. 

Alexa had aged significantly on the screen. The background had changed from her bright and cheery apartment dining area to a cold, drab setting which looked like a hospital room. Joining her on the couch were Autumn and Rachel, looking to be five-years-old. 

“I’m sorry I haven’t been able to send you these in a long time. Things have gotten crazy here. The aliens showed up a few towns over and are doing something that is ruining the air. Everyone had to move into the hospitals. Everyone is sick. Everyone who is old is dying. Your parents…”

Alexa broke down, looked away from the camera. Autumn and Rachel wrapped her in hugs. 

“Your parents are gone. My parents are gone. I don’t know how long the rest of us have.”

Alexa interrupted herself with a thick cough. 

“I’m sorry, and I have to tell you. I got married.”

Alexa looked away from the camera. 

“His name is Michael Booth. You might remember him from a holiday party years ago. I’m sorry. I couldn’t wait for you.”

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. Those were the full names of my daughters.

“I’m sorry…”

The screen went black again. I feared that would be the parting message I would receive from the sliver of the world I cared about.

The screen flickered back to life. It took a few seconds, but I eventually looked at that same drab hospital room background with Autumn and Rachel sitting on an uncomfortable-looking couch, smiling at the camera, looking a little bit older than they did in the last video. 

“Hi dad, we just wanted to let you know that things are okay,” Rachel started in with a voice that was scary similar to Alexa’s. 

“Mom’s okay too,” Autumn chimed in. “She just doesn’t feel like talking right now. Everyone was sick for a long time, but started to feel better about a week ago, so we thought we would give you an update. It seemed like the aliens left and everyone in the area thinks they aren’t coming back. I’m actually working with some people here to help stop them.”

“We’re really excited to have you come back so we can meet you,” Rachel said, her face right up in the camera. 

“Counting down the days,” Autumn said from behind Rachel.

The signal cut out and the screen went black. I rapped on the thing to try and see if it was broken, but it didn’t appear to be. The screen went back to the home screen with all of our names on it and spaces to place our thumbs. 

I couldn’t believe that was what I was going to be left with. That initial spring of hope which cracked open inside me when I met my daughters was sucked dry by the uncertainty of their final message being cut off, leaving me with an endless void of nothing to fill with the worst parts of my imagination.

I brought the box back to the group. They didn’t seem to care. They were more focused on the lights approaching from the distance. 

“I think we gotta get moving again,” said Helen.

The light clusters came into focus off the edge of the building. They appeared to be three of the alien which had chased us earlier. 

The building started to shake.

“Where do we go?” Hank screamed.

I looked for a door on the rooftop plaza. Couldn’t find one.

Rex dove down into the pool. The rest of us followed. I went last, feeling the chilled water envelope me just before the aliens arrived on the rooftop.

I rolled onto my back once below the cover of the water and l watched the three aliens zoom past the top of the pool. I looked to the crew all around me, no one met eyes. 

I looked down and saw the bottom of the pool was completely clear glass. The floor looked down into an abandoned nightclub with a dancefloor that shimmered with the blue light from the pool. 

Still gassed from the run and flight in the desert, my oxygen ran out in a handful of seconds. I looked around at the rest of the crew and saw looks of growing panic.

I locked eyes with Drea and pointed up at the surface of the pool. I didn’t see the aliens there. I thought they flew past the roof, didn’t see us there and moved on. Or, they may have just been waiting for us there to come back up. It didn’t matter. We had no choice. I pushed myself towards the surface.

I closed my eyes just before I reached the surface and felt a rushing torpedo drop through the water next to me, throwing me backwards and up out of the surface of the pool. 

My eyes open, I saw the top of the pool churn like a little stormy sea. I heard a woman scream and I caught a glimpse of two of the aliens hovering off of the edge of the roof before I was sucked back down into the pool. 

I landed on the floor next to the crew. I picked glass out of my arm and felt the hot sting of wounds open up as the last gallons of the pool flowed down onto the floor.

I watched the rest of the crew scramble to their feet on the hard floor. I found my way to a stance and we all stood about five yards away from an alien which rested its massive body limply against a grand piano. It must have dove through the bottom of the pool and broken the glass. It’s body was covered with bleeding cuts.

The alien didn’t appear to be moving, but no one seemed ready to take another step forward. We all exchanged horrified glances and scanned the room. The entrance to the club looked to be on the other side of the room. 

We started to slowly walk to the door. I stopped when a voice popped into my head. Quiet, but low and monotone, it sounded like a dying computer. 

“I’m not trying to hurt you,” the computer voice rang in my head. 

I looked around and saw the rest of the crew frozen in their tracks. We all turned around at the same time and saw the alien let out a pathetic breath, it’s massive libs sputtering like a baby’s would if it was playing a game with its mother. 

“I’m trying to help you,” the computer voice came back. 

We approached the alien with caution, it’s basketball-sized yellow eyes opened up just a bit from behind a curtain of scaly skin once we were a little more than an arm’s-length away. 

“We’re all hearing this, right?” Drea asked the group.

“Yes,” I answered back. 

“I can only communicate with you this way,” the computer voice interrupted me. “Our languages and speaking organs are very different, but the computers, or what you call brains are very much the same. You don’t need to speak. I know what you are all thinking right now. The one named, Hank, please stop thinking about that jagged piece of glass next to me and what you could do to me with it. I am already passing on. I would like to help you before I do though.”

What do we do? I thought.

“There is a reason you all are here. This was not an accident. Despite what it might seem. We sent you out and we sent you back,” the computer voice sounded in my head, sounding more and more ragged with each word.

What are you talking about. The government sent us out. We spent months at a facility. I thought.

“Are you sure of that? Did you ever see any official documentation? Did you really think your government sent you out there just to be some kind of crew someone else would feel sorry for? Did they have a track record of that kind of thinking?”

The voice was right. Our entire operation seemed incredibly unofficial when it was happening. It was always explained away because of high confidentiality, but it was easy to poke doubt into what we had been told. 

“You were our only hope,” the computer voice went on. “We selected each of you because of the grit and ingenuity you showed in your souls working through what you were born with. We knew that the others here would wear you down if you were here for the worst, so we sent you away, but we always knew you would come back. We worried that you might lose hope and that’s why we set up the orange pills to let you experience life without your ailments and to give you hope and to send the messages from your loved ones here.”

Are our loved ones okay? I thought.

“I cannot guarantee that either way. What I can tell you though is that any that are okay, have their hopes resting in your hands.”

Our hands? Our fucked up hands? I can’t even properly open a can of soup without getting stressed out. Why would the fate of the world be put in our hands? I thought.

“But what do we even do?” Helen’s soft voice rose up once mine went away.

“You need to know a couple of things. Not all of us are good. Many of us went bad once we ran out of resources and will actively harm you. A couple of them are up on that roof right now. Probably waiting for you to come back up. Avoid us at all costs.”

I started to hear the sound of rustling come from up in the hole the empty pool left. The beat of my heart started to pick up a step.

I think they are coming. I thought.

“They are, and I only have time to tell you one more thing…the pills you took will start to wear off again soon and all hope lies in you not taking those second rounds of pills and giving up.”

The rustling sound intensified in the hole of the swimming pool above us.

“Go,” the computer voice whispered the word into our minds.

The crew took off towards the entrance door we originally were trying to exit through. Two heavy thuds landed behind us over by the hole of the pool and shook the floor.

I ran to the open door until I was in a cramped hallway and our crew was falling all over each other. 

“Where do we go?” Hank screamed as we tried to collect ourselves.

I spotted an EXIT sign at the end of the hall.

I ran in the direction of the EXIT sign with the crew trailing me and those thuds gaining on us from the nightclub. 

I threw open the exit door and started rumbling down the stairs. I led the way as we ran down flight after flight after flight of stairs until we finally reached a flat landing. 

We ran out the final door and emerged in a palatial lobby filled with broken glass, ripped furniture and collapsed sculptures. 

One-by-one, our crew collapsed to the floor in exhaustion. 

I closed my eyes for a few moments to rest. I felt on the verge of sleep. It had been a draining journey since we landed and my body was used to doing pretty much nothing all day and all night for years before that. I let sleep come.

I woke up to the sound of a ding from the other side of the lobby. 

I followed the ding over to a row of three elevators built into the opposite wall. I watched the doors slowly open and saw one of the aliens emerge. Another ding rang out and another door opened. Another alien appeared in the doorway. I kept my eyes on them as they walked over to the far corner of the lobby where a crude hole about 10 feet by 25 feet rested. They let out a few grunts and both through the hole. 

The crew let out a collective breath and I saw faces start to soften. I blinked a few times to confirm what I was seeing. Hank didn’t have arms again. Rex was stumbling around the lobby, knocking over loose furniture. Helen’s scars had returned.

“Fffffffffu..fuuff….ffuck,” Drea stuttered.

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. 

My disorder was back. The final domino had dropped. 

Knot. A. Hotel. 

I had no idea what that meant. I was suddenly very thirsty for that second escape pod, despite what that monster up in the nightclub said. Fuck humanity. Fuck the world. 

I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked over to Drea and saw her eying the box in my hand with the pills. 


Drea went for the box and pried it from my disenfranchised hands. 

“Let’s watch these videos then so we can call it a day.”

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. Knot. A. Hotel. Don’t. Give. Up. It’s. Autumn. And. Rachel. 

I spaced out and stared out the front of the hotel for a moment as the message in my head clicked. Were these messages coming from Autumn and Rachel?

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. Don’t. Let. Them. Give. Up. We. All. Need. Them. Each. Reason.

“Is anyone else getting more messages?” I asked the crew. 

I received a group “No,” back. 

“I think I’m getting something,” I said to the crew.

“I don’t care,” said Helen. “I’m done with this. You can stay here and deal with these Langoliers.”

“I think the messages are coming from my daughters,” I said.

Helen clammed up. Drea hit pause on the video on the box screen. 

The room rumbled and some rubble fell off of the walls. Sounds of chatter came from the hole over in the corner the aliens had gone in.

“I think we at least need to get the hell out of here.”

The sun was rising on the desert when we went outside. The glitter of stars which covered all the buildings when we arrived had faded. It felt like being in a bar at closing time when the lights come on. 

We were just a few paces away from the hotel, headed back to the heart of the city, when a heavy crash behind us rattled the group. We didn’t even jump at this point. We were more annoyed than scared. 

I turned back towards the building and saw a crumpled heap of living matter lying in the middle of the street which led out to the hotel. It looked like the alien who helped us up in the nightclub. I thought it was dead until I saw it’s side start to rise and fall in heavy breaths. 

“He’s all yours,” Helen groused at me. 

I walked back to our friend who was splayed on the hard concrete. He looked up at me with one eye which blinked out a soggy tear.

“I am almost out of time,” the computer voice appeared back in my head. “But you need help getting back to your ship. Have Helen take another orange pill to fly you back to the ship. I don’t know everything, but I know that those like me are guarding this place like a bee hive for a reason and you have to stop them. They hide underneath the ground and only come out at night. They have all gone under now. If you can come back during the day, you can stop them and turn this all around,” the computer voice said. 

Why do we want to come back here if they are all here? I thought.

“Because you can’t run forever,” the computer voice snipped. “And trust the other voices you may be hearing. Let them be your guiding light.”

The eye in front of me closed. I waited for a couple minutes, but the voice in my head went away. I turned back to the crew. 

“Helen, it’s your lucky day. Grab one of the bottles of water out of your pack, because you’re going to take another orange pill.”

The ride back to the ship was a lot longer than the one to the city. Minus the high-speed chase and the added fatigue of the past day’s travels to Helen’s motor, it was well past daybreak when we got out there and the temperature had risen to well over 100 degrees. We were barely coasting by the time we found our ship sticking out of a sand bank where we crashed landed.

Our resident mechanic Rex was not happy about having to go back to work in the engine room. He figured he had retired from spaceship engineering when we smashed into the hard sand, but he was wrong, we had one last voyage to take our tin can of a vessel on. What exactly that voyage would be took shape as I fought off sleep in the galley.

The messages kept pouring into my head.

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. Docking. Station. Top.

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. Not. A. Hotel. Docking. Station. On. Top.

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. Landing. On. Top.

The messages eventually painted the picture of the palm-tree shaped hotel we had just left and it’s roof. I remembered that there was a crooked steel point in the shape of a shark’s tail on the roof next to the pool. My brain recreated that shape over and over and over again.

I remembered thinking the structure looked incredibly low-tech and thrown together for how lavish the hotel looked. It looked like a gaggle of hillbillies got drunk and decided to weld a giant beer bottle opener to the top of the thing. The welds were ugly, sloppy, the metal unpolished and a tad rusted. It also stuck up off the building at a weird angle, it was asymmetrical and half hung off the side. 

My mind turned to the further decoding the messages I was receiving and the architecture of our vessel. I pictured the outside steel of our ship and thought about it’s curved bottom and curved hook of a rod which ran up and down the outside of the ship.

It clicked. That added-on heap of metal on top of the hotel was a landing rod for our vessel. The messages were telling us to land the ship on that thing. 

The only person who had any idea how to actually fly the ship ironically was the blind Rex. He wasn’t thrilled about doing it, but he agreed when I conceded that we would just fly straight home if it didn’t work and go about figuring out what the rest of our lives would be. 

The top of the hotel appeared vacant when we made our approach. The entire scene was so different than it was the night before. Without the lights, the entire world looked dried and dead again. The hotel looked like a pocket knife lying in a garden of dead sand instead of a twinkling dream out of a futuristic version of The Wizard of Oz.

Our captain Rex guided us towards the point of the building, our landing spot which stuck up like the needle on top of the Capital Records building in Hollywood. 

“Hold onto your butts,” Rex said.

Rex eased the ship above the point and started to slowly drop us down. The entire ship shook and screeched as we scratched down onto the point.

“Is it working?” I asked.

The ship stopped abruptly.

“Seems like that’s as far as this ride goes son,” Rex said in a mock Southern drawl. “So now what fearless leader?”

I had no idea. 

“I guess we can take a look outside,” I said. 

I walked the group over to the door of the ship and hit the button to open it. We were greeted by a dark corridor with just a few blinking red lights once the steel door slowly slid away. 

I took a deep breath and led the group into the corridor with a focus on the red lights which blinked on a wall across the space. 

The space I stepped into was very similar to the space inside our ship. It was hard to see in the near dark, but the feel looked and felt the same, the instrument panels were about the same size and it even had the strange faint smell of crayons that haunted our ship. 

The three blinking lights were round, dime-sized buttons against the wall rested above a small, dark TV screen. I hit the button in the middle and the TV screen woke up, transitioning from jet black to gray.

The reptilian face of one of the aliens slowly came into focus on the screen. The thing blinked with its big dark eyes a few times and gave a nod of its scaly, bulbous head. 

The crew gathered around the TV with me. 

A digital-tinged voice, similar to the computerized voice of the alien who helped us earlier popped into my brain.

“If you are hearing this, I am glad to say the bulk of your mission has been accomplished. You have been sequestered and returned alive. Your mission was not what it seemed. You see, each of you was chosen for a very specific reason for the specific elements of the task you are about to take on. We needed to send you away for a time to make sure you would be alive to take on this challenge when the time was right. What lies below you is an active hive. It rests below the ground and is home to well over a million of the alien creatures which came to your planet to harvest your resources until they ran out. These creatures have almost completely accomplished this, wiping out most of your planet’s life in the process and are sucking the last of the reserves down in that hole as we speak. I am part of a small fraction of these creatures who saw fault in what we were doing once we arrived and formed a rebellion which fights to save what is left of your beautiful life here on Earth. Our group worked with the skeleton of your government to bring you together to execute this mission once we saw what the other creatures were planning. You represent your planet’s last hope. Please do not take the honor lightly, and please know that should you choose to turn around and leave this challenge, it will only be a matter of time before the last beating pulse of your world is sucked dry and left for dead.”

The image of the alien was replaced with a green digital map on the screen. The map looked to show an outline of the hotel we were on top of. 

“This map shows you the inside of the hotel below you. Focus on the circular corridor which runs down the middle. This is a passageway which runs through the security system which blocks the heart of the reactor that powers their hive. The hive is their primary weakness and they need this corridor to exist so it can vent, but it also leaves them vulnerable if anyone can ever get through their complex security system. The ship you have been living on is actually loaded with an atomic charge which will be delivered through that corridor once you have cleared it and has the power to destroy their civilization and every one of their life forms.”

The map zoomed in closer to that corridor and populated the tube with various red lines. 

“There are five different security rooms the creatures have put in place to prevent anyone from accessing this corridor which leads to the reactor, each with a different challenging aspect each of you will be able to conquer with the unique skill set you bring. Please let me explain…

The room with the video screen led to a circular capsule with a ladder which descended down out of it. Our crew stood their staring at the thing for a few minutes after our instructions had been given, knowing what he had to do, committed to at least giving it a try. 

The first security system we faced was a room filled with blinding lights. Rex cleared the room and allowed the rest of us to safely pass through. 

The second challenge was a suffocating tunnel, so tight no one with four limbs would ever be able to squeeze through it. That was no problem for Hank . He was able to wiggle through like a worm without arms until he was on the other side and released a button which opened up the tunnel wider so we could all pass through.

The next section of corridor was a scalding tunnel of burning-hot water. It took a lot of convincing and a lot of touches of the toe to the liquid, but Helen eventually dipped in. Her scars fully protected her from the liquid. She swam through the blood red liquid, holding her breath for close to two minutes before a buzzer rang out and the rest of the crew watched the liquid start to recede. 

The rest of the crew stood at the entryway, praying that Helen had made it through. We let out a collective sigh when we saw her pock-marked arm climb towards us.

“I was about to die,” Helen screeched out as soon as her face came into view. “Let’s get onto the next one of these cluster fucks.”

We headed to the next security stage. We knew the next two were going to be more challenging. Less straight-forward physical challenges, the next two were more mental chess with precision required.

It was Drea’s job to tackle the audio security room. According to our directions, the room was sound-triggered by voice. There was an audio system which asked whoever entered who they were and required them to verbally answer questions to confirm their identity. 

Drea worked for the government as a vocal mimicker before our voyage. Her stuttering ability may have killed her personal conversation abilities, but it gave her a freaky, Saturday Night Live’s best ability to mimic voices she heard. It was the only way to break her stuttering. She could talk in someone else’s voice without stuttering, but not her own. 

Our instructions gave Drea a script of the vocal alien language which wrote out the answers she should use when asked questions in the alien language. This was the challenge we were most shaky about. Drea crammed and practiced the vocals as much as she could in the hour or so which led up to her walking into that cold, metallic room filled with just one speaker, but based on the wobble in her knees, she was very unsure of herself when she went to work. 

The first sound which came out of the speakers in the room was exactly what our instructions had played for Drea. Drea mimicked the suggested response without flaw. She then went back and forth with the security system rapid-fire without missing a beat. 

The crew dashed to Drea and engulfed her like teammates after a big win. The momentum of our success was creating an energy between us we had never felt before. Our group of losers was suddenly soaring because of our flaws. 

The last challenge came down to me and was the most-complicated of them all. I was going to have to be walked through Rubix cube-style puzzles in a small room. It required me to call on my abilities to connect with my daughters. Autumn and Rachel had deciphered a code in the room of my challenge with the alien rebels who had snuck a camera into the corridor years before. 

The walls of the room were lined metallic cubes the size of a shoebox filled with small tiles in various bright, pastel colors. The tiles looked like the inside of a oyster shell – those radiant, soft rainbows of colors which shimmered in the light. It was my job to line up the colored shells in the right patterns based on instructions sent into my head. 

I was going to have to do it with sweaty hands and shaking wrists. I stood in the middle of the room, waiting to hear a voice in my head.

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. First. Block. All. Red. All. Blue. All. Yellow. Vertical. 

I attacked the first group of tiles and arranged in the described pattern. They locked and a gasp of air sputtered out of the machinery above my head. 

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. Second. Block. All. Blue. All. Yellow. All Red. Horizontal. 

I followed the instructions. The tiles lined up, locked and the steam came out above me again. Two down, three more to go. 

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. Top. Row. Red. Red. Red. Yellow. Yellow. Red. Blue.

The instructions for the rest of the rows were similar. I followed them until all the tiles locked in and the air burst out from above the panel. Two more to go. 

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. Fast. One. Of. Them. Is. Coming.

I felt the room begin to shake. A rumble came from the door in front of us which would finally open up the reactor. 

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. Keep. Going.

I clenched my teeth and walked up to the next challenge of tiles. 

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. 

The instructions came faster this time. The noises and rumbles got louder from behind the door we needed to open. I rushed. I made mistakes. Had to go back and fix them. I locked it in and moved onto the next with my breath held. 

“Come on man. They’re coming,” Rex seethed from behind me. 

I shook off a thick coat of sweat when I approached the final box. The lights of the room flickered on and off. 

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. 

I focused on the last box, even with the walls shaking the images in my eye, blurring the edges, sweat trickling down my eyelids. I made it through all of the lines except the last. A heavy pound smacked against the door. 

“Go. Run back up!” I screamed at the crew behind me. “I’ll finish it. Hit the switch if you hear them coming.”

I heard the crew rush back up the corridor.

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. 

I lit into the final line. Moving as fast as I could, until I saw a rainbow jumble in front of me. Heard the air escape from the vent above me and saw the door at the back of the room open into darkness. 

I ran as fast as I could through each cleared security room, feeling the aliens in hot pursuit behind me.

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. They. Are. Right. Behind. You.

“Tell me something I don’t know!” I screamed out into the cramped air of the the third room. 

I felt something wet slap on my ankle and try to latch onto me. I was able to squirm out of it and keep running until I reached the first room. I could hear the sounds of our ship firing up. 

“Flip the switch!” I screamed forward.

I felt another wet slap on my ankle. This one burned this time, the pain almost knocked me to the ground. I worked through it and reached the last door which led into our ship.

The door to the ship slowly started to close next to me. I leaned back against the wall next to it and tried to catch my breath. 

I felt that wet, hot slap again – on my arm this time. I looked over to see a pink forked tongue wrapped around my elbow. I slapped at it, but couldn’t get the strong muscle to relent. It just stuck to me, burning my skin and wrenching my muscle off of my bone.

I looked over to my right and saw that I was in luck. The thick tongue was wrapped around the side of the closing door and would be pinned between the door jam and the closing door in just a few moments. 

My elbow roared in pain, but it was ultra-satisfying to watch the door slide across the opening until it loped off the tongue. I heard a piercing scream come from the other side of the door followed by frantic scrambling and hammers onto the door, which dented the thick steel. I slowly stepped away with my eyes on the crackling steel. 

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. The. Charge. Has. Just. Been. Sent. 

A massive rush ran through the ship and knocked me onto my feet. I fell hard on my head, but kept my consciousness. 

I worked my way to my feet and stumbled into the heart of the ship. I saw Rex at the controls, his tongue sticking out of his mouth, deep in concentration and strain.

“Are we taking off?” I yelled.

Rex cringed some more and yanked on the controls. I scanned the faces of the others in the room. nN one seemed to look too confident. 

I was able to answer my own question by looking out the front window of the ship. It looked like we were sailing away from the hotel tower and off into the endless ocean. 

“Did it work?” I asked.

Rex shook his head. 

“I have no idea. Don’t know how we will know.”

An explosion rocked the ship. Clouds of fire blasted into view in the front window. I fell forward and leaned on Rex’ captain’s chair to keep myself from falling over. I felt the heat of the flames through the thick glass of the front window. I saw Rex lean his right hand a little harder on the throttle. 

I felt the ship start to move faster and could no longer hold myself up. I slipped backwards onto the floor and slid across the room.

It took a couple of minutes, but the ship calmed down to where I was able to make it to my feet. 

The first thing I saw was an endless horizon of smoke and fire out the front window.

I used pained steps to get over to Rex and saw a look of accomplishment on his face. He watched ashes fall from the sky and descend down into the ocean or the city floor next to where the palm-tree-shaped hotel had been.

“Me thinks mission accomplished,” Rex said.

The rest of the crew joined us one-by-one. We watched the fireworks show which was the carcass of the hotel falling from the sky in pieces at a safe distance.

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. Rex. Is. Right. Life. Goes. On. 24. South. Arlington. Drive. Arlington. Virginia. 22211. Tell. Rex. Go.

We didn’t sit around to watch the ashes burn or see if those aliens made their way out of their nest. We had done what was asked of us and it was time to move onto whatever was next. 

Rex listened to the only direction any of us had. The last script of directions which popped into my head before a long, long silence which rested in my head as I slept and assumed that we flew halfway across the globe, back to the flatlands of coastal Virginia.

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth.

My first message in hours woke me up from my lonely bunk on the ship. I looked up at the endless strikes of days I had carved into the wooden bunk above and soaked in the names of my daughters, feeling close to home for the first time in ages. 

I could tell the ship had stopped based on the lack of movement when I woke up. I got out of bed and headed to the galley where I would be able to see where we were and check in with everyone else.

The galley was quiet, still, empty. I looked out the front window in front of Rex’ captain’s chair and saw a discomforting sight – more endless desert. Had we not even left the desert around Dubai?

Autumn. Booth. Rachel. Booth. Outside. Section. L. Upper. East. Plot. G. 52. And. G. 53.

I didn’t call out for the rest of the crew. I figured everyone was sleeping or had left to go their own way. An Irish Goodbye served as the perfect escape hatch for our entire awkward relationship. 

I slipped out the door into the outside world. 

I dropped down into sand. A quick 360 degree scan revealed we were not in the desert of the Middle East. I could see dusty, giant tour busses all around us, some tipped on their side, some with busted out windows, all looking like they hadn’t moved in a very long time.

A hill rose above me to one side. I swore I recognized the buildings and the gates at the bottom which ushered me in. I had been to countless field trip there throughout my scholastic life as a student growing up in the state of Maryland – this was Arlington National Cemetery.

All the life had been sucked out of the place. No pun intended. The lush green hills had been replaced with dirty, dusty scabland. The harsh sun which hung above plastered the setting in the golden light of a breast of chicken cooking in an oven. The trees which dotted the landscape were stripped of their leaves and the singing birds which used to call them home. 

What remained were endless grids of gravestones, resting up on the hill above. Their curved stones washed white in the searing sun.

I now knew the meaning of the last message which had been sent to me. I wish I had not.

I walked up to the first building inside the rusted fence and retrieved a torn and faded map which laid out the entire cemetery on paper. I saw the Upper East Lot, Section G on there. 

The walk took about 10 minutes, all uphill, until I was standing in the middle of the sand and scrub of Section G, counting the rows I went through until I got to the 50s. I stopped on the edge, knowing the ones I was looking for would be there waiting for me forever because the dead don’t move. 

I found my way to the stones 57 and 58 – marked with names I knew. Autumn Booth and Alexa Booth. They had both past on three years ago. Autumn’s was marked with numerous military honors even I recognized – Silver Star, Purple Heart. 

I started to cry. I pushed thoughts out of my head. 

You brought me all the way here just to see that you died?

I didn’t even have time to think about what I should have thought about. Words rang back in my head. 

Rachel. Booth. Turn. Around.

I turned around and saw a face which looked like mine standing about 10 yards down the hill from me – her long dark hair blowing a the breeze which had also brought over the first clouds I had seen since we landed back on Earth. She brushed sand out of her face and walked up to me. We met in front of graves 57 and 58. She was a few years older than the last time I saw her on video, probably around eight or nine. Her face showed more weather than an average kids of that age. It almost looked like she had wrinkles. 

“I didn’t want to tell you about mom and Autumn unless you made it,” I heard Rachel’s voice in-person for the first time. “Autumn was a prodigy. She decoded the aliens’ language, but they caught her and destroyed her brain. Mom was with her when it happened.”

I looked back to the graves with fat tears in my eyes. The moisture in my eyes was joined by moisture in the air. Soft drops of rain began to fall on the graves and my head.

The voice showed back up in my head.

Autumn. Booth. I. Haven’t. Felt. Rain. In. Forever. You. Must. Have. Accomplished. The. Mission. Dad.

I looked down at the plot of land right in front of Autumn’s gravemarker and saw what looked to be the tiniest sprig of a green piece of foliage  trickling up from the sand. I watched that little sprout sway in the wind and pick up the rain as the drops fell down harder and harder.