The footage of the aliens never got old. It arrived grainy, soundless, and in black and white, yet utterly sacred to every living person who had ever looked to the stars with wonder. To Drummond, the man to view it all first, Christmas came each day to the desert observatory with every frame and every gray pixel. He hugged his bony shoulders while watching the biggest monitor in the control room, his mouth agape except for when he smiled. He gazed for hours, even as the laser communication from space revealed only the blandest of alien mountain ranges. When a ravine appeared in those mountains, a winding, carved-out path, Drummond jolted in his chair. Though 32-years-old, he felt like Christmas, Easter, and Valentine’s Day all sprang up on his birthday.
The alien roadway panned onto the upper edge of the screen like the trails recorded hours ago and the others from weeks ago. Like them, the path between mountains moved, its entire length filled with muscular humanoids walking single file. Their gargoylish wings barely stretched from their hunched backs. Not one wing ever flapped outward to brush the conical faces of the ’Goyles traveling close behind. They marched upright, naked and nice, respectful of their fellow journeyers. They neither hauled nor wore any belongings, carried no young, nor did any aliens rush or hobble like refugees from a war. Some stepped into alcoves to rest. Others disappeared into caves where a food source must have filled their ever-empty hands.
Wherever they were headed, something epic must be happening there. Some congregation or advent drove them all northward on their hot, rocky planet. Whatever took place there, whether historic or common, all of humankind waited to see.
Drummond saw everything first and Hefferman second. After all, Hefferman had Drummond to see it for him.
“Anything important?” Hefferman asked when Drummond’s chair squeaked.
“Besides every frame?” Drummond nearly squeaked himself. “And every millisecond?”
A little chime in his voice sometimes made him forget that the whole project could get scrapped any day.
Hefferman barely looked up from the handheld set on his big gut. He resumed toying with it, reclined as usual in his battered office chair. The buttons on his dress shirt looked more tense than he did, even though he and Drummond shared the first glimpses of extraterrestrial life.
“Just more walking?” Hefferman asked. “Let me know when they find a girl.”
“’Goyles and girls,” Drummond sang to himself.
Drummond looked for other sexes and forms among the dozens of marchers in the alien chain. From the top-down view, ’Goyle height appeared constant throughout the entire species, a steady four and a half feet. The canvasing Mathias probe spied countless glories while orbiting planet H 4096, but it found no distinctly different peoples. The aliens walked, all muscle and sinew, with not a runt or a straggler among them. The billions of enthralled viewers on Earth had scrutinized thousands of ’Goyles, and none had scars, wounds, stumps, or deformities. No tired or violent few ever showed themselves. With their baffling nudity, and perhaps at the cost of moving all fauna and flora underground, they had achieved something even more impressive than good mobility and world peace.
They had achieved immortality.
The ’Goyles marched over hundreds of kilometers of their rough and rocky world, never passing a graveyard, ritual, building, or monument. Drummond stared at the newest lineup and still found not one sickly, skinny, or fallen ’Goyle. Their conformity matched everything previously seen in the eight weeks of gray and gritty footage. Despite most of that video consisting of black-and-white mountain ranges, Hefferman’s corona of hair still had the most boring shade of gray in the control room.
“Learn anything good today?” Hefferman asked.
“About the wings?” Drummond replied.
“About anything. I’ll take it.”
“Got the grandkids coming over all the time now, huh?” Drummond joked. He didn’t blink or glance away from the monitor.
“Yeah,” Hefferman said to his handheld.
“Well, the wings still look pretty small and useless,” Drummond said. “If I had kids, I’d go with the thermoregulation theory. Everyone knew how hot the planet could get long before the Mathias probe launched.”
The bend of alien road panned off the bottom of the screen. Mountains reigned again, and no one on Earth could tell for how much longer. The Mathias probe had coursed over the planet’s northern hemisphere in its lumbering sweep using its own life-seeking guidance system. Drummond pressed his lips together. He looked at the poster of Leonardo da Vinci on the wall above the panel of knobs and dials. The famous yellowed, spotty sketch glared at him. The caption below quoted his greatest advice:
“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”
“Hey,” Drummond said in the disappointing silence, “if your grandkids only go to preschool, you can say the wings made ’em fly long ago.”
Hefferman scoffed. “They use their wings for display, Drummond—a mating ritual stupid enough for them to take underground with all their other embarrassments. You can see they stomped out anyone who can’t conform.”
“Conform to the norm,” Drummond sang to no one.
Drummond took a full four-second break to gaze at da Vinci’s hand-drawn eyes. He had put up the poster to waft some inspiration over Hefferman, one of only seven people who got to see the aliens before the world did. Hefferman never seemed to notice it.
“Look,” Hefferman said, “I’ve got Mathias nagging me for answers, not grandkids. He already sounds pretty suspicious about the rigid conformity up there and the lack of biodiversity. It looks sinister.”
“Oh, you should give Mathias my email,” Drummond said with a smirk. “Give him my cell number too. Hey, I promise I won’t even use the word fly.”
Drummond stretched out his wiry arms as though trying to fly himself, just for a second. Hefferman didn’t notice that either.
“Not a chance,” Hefferman said. “He hates talking about the project more than he hates the project itself. A guy that rich doesn’t want his wiki page all about one thing, especially some interstellar probe his dad paid for. Mathias had diapers on when it launched. Don’t get too attached to that screen, Drummond. He only has you here in case he needs a radio technician to repair something. He’d get rid of me too if he didn’t need an astronomer. I can’t tell you any more than that.”
Drummond watched the alien mountainscape scroll by, boasting its higher peaks and deeper crags. He heard Hefferman grab his water bottle and stomp outside. They both knew that nothing in their contracts forbade them from sharing secret information between themselves, even directives from Mathias. Hefferman simply had no other power to flaunt, and his grandkids had no clue what he did in the desert.