The aliens landed outside his hospital window. He had been staring out the window, unable to sleep, when the blue light atomic-blasted the sky. It cast a conical spotlight, widening, descending.
Is this it? he thought. The end result to all this senseless cruelty?
He had been in the hospital for a week. Three months earlier, his skin began yellowing and he wasn’t able to eat. He suspected hepatitis, having just been to his daughter’s wedding, where a hundred people shared close quarters in the woods for three days. But the doctor’s visit revealed pancreatic cancer. He had two to four months to live at its current progression.
There were a few things to be done. Nothing would save his life, but he could prolong it and stave off suffering. An immediate necessity was to insert something called a stent in his bile duct, where the tumor had obstructed passage and was causing the poor digestion and jaundice. The operation was a success, and he felt better.
While inserting the stent, the surgeon was able to examine the tumor and decided it might be operable. This, she said, would add at least two years to his life, and in some cases, as many as five. At sixty-eight years old, this felt like an enormous blessing. For the surgery to be possible, he would need to undergo a short round of chemotherapy—just enough to shrink the tumor: three to four weeks. Though he didn’t want to grasp at miracle cures, it sounded promising. He agreed, if mostly to appease his wife and daughter.
After the chemo, he was one week away from having surgery when his temperature spiked and he began vomiting. The area around his stent had become infected with a form of strep. The surgeon cleaned it out, but the infection had spread to his heart and lungs. He would have to remain in the hospital until it cleared. His surgery was postponed.
His wife stayed the first night with him, her body curled kidney-bean-like in an armchair. It was good having her there, hearing the regular high wheeze of her snore, but the comfort was somewhat negated by an awareness of his selfishness. Hospitals are not places for the healthy.
The next night he told her to go home.
“What if something happens in the middle of the night?” she asked. “I feel so useless at the house. I’m cleaning all the time. And the bed is lopsided without you.”
His hand rested in her lap. She massaged the skin between his fingers.
“Let me at least wash you before I leave,” she suggested.
“That’s what the nurses are for.”
That was a wounding thing to say, but necessary. There was an ascetic pleasure in the emptiness of the room after she left. He was alone with his suffering. He imagined monks in mountain temples felt like this—the bitter joy of renunciation.
So here he was. The fever had abated, but he was not entirely lucid. The shadows and light of his room undulated like sea-phantoms. He was constantly thirsty. The blankets were starchy and too-thin-too-thick. Tomorrow, his daughter would fly in to visit. But he was alone now.
Outside his window was a big field. He thought it was odd that there was an empty field so close to a hospital. Did the hospital own the property? Did they plan on expanding their facilities? At night, the woods beyond jutted with toothy menace. He asked the nurses about the field, but they didn’t know and lacked his curiosity.
The alien ship landed in the field. When it shut off its landing lights, which until now had been dazzling him with their blue cone, he was confused. What kind of alien vessel was this? With its curves of ethereal white, it looked more like a giant egg than a spaceship. How did such a thing fly? But he decided he liked it, sitting there in the exact center of the field, asking nothing, demanding nothing, answering to no one.
These aliens could stay as long as they wanted.
He spent the rest of the night—until dawn illuminated the flat brown nothing of the field—staring at the egg, hoping for the aliens to emerge. But the shell remained unbroken. He drifted off to sleep and was woken up two hours later by the nurse changing an IV bag. The thing he missed most about being healthy: uninterrupted sleep. Whether it was a family member visiting, one of his dozen doctors explaining something, or simply his physical discomfort keeping him awake, it was difficult to get the eight hours he needed.
He considered telling the nurse about the aliens, but as he was opening his mouth, something remarkable happened.
DO NOT TELL HER ABOUT US.
The thought was not his own. It came through his mind and in the cadence of his interior voice, but with a brassy and sudden violence. His thoughts had grown fuzzy, but this was emergency-broadcast-system-clear. The nurse stopped attaching the IV to scrutinize him. A thin woman with a pointy nose and pretty light-brown eyes.
“Feeling all right?”
“Given the circumstances,” he managed to reply.
“I can get you something. Don’t let pride make you suffer. We all know you’re a big strong man.”
A feeble imitation of a smile. “Now that you mention it, I do have this tumor inside me. You wouldn’t be willing to pop in there and take it out, would you?”
She patted him on the arm, an acknowledgement of his sporting attempt at humor. She finished hooking up the bag with shaky fingers.
“I would if I could,” she said.
“Yeah, yeah. That’s what all the ladies say.”
When she left, he returned to looking at the spaceship. The eggshell—or more precisely, a previously invisible door in the ship, perfectly circular—had opened. He sat up straight, careful not to pull out his new IV line. He was too weak to stand, otherwise he might have wheeled the whole contraption with its bags and tubes to the window.
bsp; There was a flicker inside the ship, and three large shapes emerged. As they stepped out of the shadows, the mid-morning sun rising behind them, their features became clear. He was disappointed, almost offended. What kind of aliens were these?
They were doctors—or rather, aliens dressed as doctors. They were at least three times the size of normal doctors, but they wore white medical coats. And their heads… there was no getting around it—they had the heads of giant roosters. Their bright red wattles gleamed in the precise winter light. Their combed skulls made long, sock-puppet-like shadows on the wounded gray earth.
Space roosters, he thought. I never would have guessed.
GREETINGS, the outside voice said again, ripping tidally through his skull. WE HAVE COME FROM AFAR.
The voice was layered, with a jaggedness at its edges that made him certain that all three space roosters were speaking—or more accurately, thinking—the same words at him.
WE WISH TO OFFER YOU AID. AID AND SUCC