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The Heavens’ Game by Nicholas Stillman

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.

Something epic happened wherever they headed. 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.


Drummond pulled up to the radio observatory to make it look like he had to drive there everyday. Really, he slept in his car every night just a kilometer or so away.

He opened the cooler on the passenger seat and counted the water bottles and bags of walnuts remaining. He had enough left to stay in the desert for another two weeks without making any trips to town. The little observatory and the porta potty behind it looked as insignificant as the windswept rocks everywhere else. Drummond’s 2072 beater added little to the scenery, even with its new off-road tires courtesy of Mathias. Drummond slid the cooler onto the floor. Hefferman would have a harder time opening it down there should the stodgy old man snoop around.

Hefferman’s parked van gleamed from its daily car wash. He normally didn’t arrive until late morning. Drummond stumbled out of his dust-spotted car and squinted in the hot wind. He preened his suit futilely, having slept in it with the driver seat lowered all the way back. Mathias, who owned everything but the wind out here, probably had loftier things to do anyway than look at the security camera footage.

Drummond checked over the dish antenna 12.649 meters away from the white observatory. No one had driven out this far to vandalize the dish, snoop for its secret purpose, or take selfies under it. Such wanderers would feel a slight heat from the infrared beam occasionally veering off-target, but they would never guess that it came from the Mathias probe 16 light years away. Drummond gave the security camera on the nearest pole an exaggerated thumbs up, in case Mathias himself did care to check.

Drummond shivered harder than on any previous morning, and not from having to sleep with the car heater on for most of the night. He still felt Hefferman’s voice crawling over him, warning him about the project’s likely termination. Hefferman may as well have thrown a bag of bugs into the car to sleep on the seats too. Drummond entered the two-room observatory without having to key in the security code this time. The cold from the steel doorknob nestled in his hand and stayed there.

“Good morning,” Hefferman said. The drone of the adjacent generator room sounded nicer.

Hefferman had already put on a pot of something cheap and horrible. He sat hunched over his favorite monitor, rubbing what little hair his troubled fingers could find.

“Hey, Heff.” Drummond took his seat under the da Vinci poster. It took him only seconds to get his shoulders, spine, and wireless mouse in their proper places. “Feeling the faith today?”

“That something different might arrive?” Hefferman asked. “No. But if it does, I want to make a good spin on it right away. Mathias already feels conscientious about tinkering with human history. I want all those wings to unfold and drop giftboxes on orphan ’Goyles. I want to see perfect little bows on those giftboxes.”

“Oh, we’ll find the giftboxes,” Drummond said. Grainy images of mountains reflected off his corneas. “We’ll find the steam coming off the turkey dinners inside them.”

It only took minutes for the two of them to scan through eight hours of overnight footage. It came in from the other two secret observatories a third of the way around the Earth. The jagged landscape of H 4096 scrolled by at speeds they upped or slowed with nudges of their mouse wheels. The control room filled with the smell of sweat, mostly Hefferman’s, and the stench from the coffee urn, also Hefferman’s doing. Drummond ran the video through software which could spot novel or noteworthy patterns. Nothing new appeared on the arid world, though--just a few more segments of road and its single-file traffic of clonelike ’Goyles.

Hefferman sighed and emailed the previous day’s footage to Mathias. The financier would soon release the new content to the eager population of Earth--if it impressed him enough. Hefferman’s sighs never stopped afterward, though, and they blended into the rumble of the air-conditioning which kicked in at 10 AM. Drummond marveled over the geological quirks the software highlighted, thrilled by all that could happen for humankind in one undecorated room. At 2:32 PM, a flatland slowly rolled onto four different screens. The creatures who filled it posed in the most important image ever to come from space.

“Look!” Drummond shouted.

He heard Hefferman drop a pen far behind him. Then, neither of them breathed. They froze as though nothing else in the cosmos could move except for the synchronized flapping of wings onscreen. Even the footage slowed down, for the Mathias probe had spotted novel movements with software of its own. A row of ’Goyles appeared at the top of the screen, each of them kneeling with one huge wing raised. They all faced rightward, the head of one bowed behind the extended feet of another, like statues sculpted by man. The row of wings beat a slow rhythm, in perfect unison, fanning something offscreen--someone monumentally lucky on such a hot world.

The video panned up as always, revealing a second row of ’Goyles just meters north of the previous worshipers. The second row knelt and fanned. The third and fourth did as well. The next four parallel lines of ’Goyles crouched just the same, but faced leftward. They fanned the region north with their right-side wings instead of their left. The pattern of four rows facing one way and the next four facing the opposite gradually filled the whole screen. It appeared that even immortals tired out and had to change positions.

“A nice little breeze for their master’s villa,” Hefferman said. “Or his open-air harem. Or his palace orchard. A whole appendage evolved solely for worship--total submission built right into their bodies via eugenics.”

Whatever awe Hefferman had ever felt in childhood finally came out in his voice. Even so, his grumbling sounded as lively as the sounds from the mini fridge. Drummond couldn’t speak. His voice fell ever upward, lost in the stars. Mesmerized by the ’Goyles, he heard two thud sounds as Hefferman’s elbows leaned on a hard panel of dials. He heard Hefferman’s hands burying and hiding the grimmest face on Earth. The project’s doom unfolded in Drummond’s periphery, but he never looked away from the screen.

“Immortality…and they can’t even drive,” Hefferman said. “They fan some tyrant who probably owns the whole planet. Perfect unity. Total harmony. No wonder people only live a century down here.”

Drummond stared at the screen like on every workday before. This time, he would miss many more meals. He cupped his hands over his face, over everything but his eyes. He stared through a mask of fingers, listening to Hefferman hurl documents and thumb drives into a huge cardboard box.


Drummond stayed at the observatory overnight. He knew how to angle the monitor so he could get beverages while still watching the aliens. He started talking to the coffee urn six hours after Hefferman left. It had become part of the team in a way, and setting up some music would have taken him away from the footage for over half a minute.

The flatlands rolled on with more rows of ’Goyles, each fanning wind to the north. The first horizontal rows to span the screen had an average of 24 kneelers each. By 8:00 AM, a 25th became common even though the foot of space between ’Goyles remained constant. In the agonizing time it took for the next row to fully emerge onscreen, Drummond applied some geographical software. He found a slight curvature in the later rows which accounted for the extra worshiper. The curving increased as the video panned further north. It implied that a series of concentric circles surrounded something quite special in the center.

Drummond found no irregularities in the fanning pattern of individual ’Goyles.

Hefferman arrived in the morning two hours late. He brought in more empty boxes.

“Good morning,” he said. “We got terminated. So did the other two observatories. Check your online banking. You’ll find the rest of the year’s pay deposited, including vacation pay and the maximum overtime hours. Pretty decent hush money, I’d say.”

Drummond turned in his chair, the bags under his eyes falling a bit further. Hefferman already had the control room looking bare after hauling out files yesterday. He began stuffing entire office computers into a box. The monitors and keyboards lay disconnected on their counters, like throwaways of a butchered animal.

“What, Mathias just said, ‘screw it’ after waiting sixty years?” Drummond asked. “We don’t even know what they worship yet!”

“He doesn’t want us to know,” Hefferman said. He crammed a tangle of monitor cables into the box. “He thinks the aliens will influence us. If humanity finds out that tyranny leads to immortality, if we just see an example of it working, we’ll pursue the same course.”

Drummond looked around the room. The panels of knobs, dials, and gauges looked back at him like startled eyes, none of them as spooked as his own.

“How can he stop the probes about to launch?” Drummond asked. “Or the Dixon probe that launched two months ago?”

“He won’t,” Hefferman said, still hunched over the box. “He hopes the aliens change their ideology or die out in the decades it takes for the new probes to get there. Or maybe they’ll start a new culture in the additional 16 years it takes for the laser streams to reach us.”

“What?!” Drummond shouted. He stood, but his head swam and his vision went black from orthostatic hypotension. He wobbled like a vine in the wind. “What if the next probes find the ’Goyles still kneeling, or worse? What if they find something nastier, like global war? What does it matter if we tell everyone now?”

“You think I didn’t tell Mathias all that?!” Hefferman bellowed back. He finally spun to face Drummond and the stripped room. “Have you seen his list of humanitarian projects? He doesn’t want to kick off our own little race for global autocracy. Someone else can soil their own family name, but don’t expect him to.”

“He can’t just put a bookmark in human discovery,” Drummond said. “One billionaire can’t pause history. Why would he even think that he can?”

Hefferman grabbed the armory of pens from his pocket and threw them in the nearest empty box. “It doesn’t concern us. Maybe his dying father said, ‘Take all this money, and don’t screw anything up, son, or God will punish me for it.’ Maybe they hugged and cried in their rich, pansy little world where they thought they owned cancer.”

“I guess they own space instead,” Drummond said to his chair. He stood with his back to the monitor for the first time, guarding it.

“We got a big happy glimpse on some other guy’s dime,” Hefferman said. “If you want to see more, have your own probe built. Have some kids so they can watch whatever Dixon beams back. You might even live long enough to see the horrors out there. For now, Mathias wants us and everyone on Earth to suppress our curiosity. Maybe he’ll fund the fight against tyranny. He has a head start.”

“Both of you just assume we’ll copy whatever the ’Goyles do?” Drummond asked.

“Oh, come on!” Hefferman yelled. “You think the superrich will throw away a shot at immortality when they see that it’s become biologically possible? Not only that, but they can have immortal servants too. You’ve seen the perfectionism of the worship. You’ve analyzed their wrinkles yourself. Those ’Goyles all live for thousands of years. We have to find our own way forward instead of emulating the heavens’ game. You have until midnight to clear out your stuff and lock up. Read your contract with extreme care regarding information breeches.”

Hefferman stacked three boxes and picked up all of them. For someone with a bowling pin figure, it looked like a feat of strength the ’Goyles would applaud. He carried the stack outside to the back of his van.

Drummond called after him. “If you and Mathias like power so much, you have to tell him to keep this going! The greatest discoveries take risk! We have the key to the cosmos here!” He ran outside and shouted to the cameras atop the poles in case they monitored sound. With Mathias in charge, they probably did. “Tell him that! The rich make the rules, but the little people like us decide if we follow them or not!”

“Not on this world,” Hefferman said while he climbed into the driver seat.

He drove away at 16 kilometers per hour. Those off-road tires had a good two years left in them.

Drummond turned back to the observatory. The door flapped open in the desert wind, its doorknob now hot from the blistering sunlight. He could still see both his monitor with the genuflecting ’Goyles and the da Vinci poster above it. He ran inside and stared at the new row of kneelers that had appeared without his direct observation. They all flexed and fanned except for one who lay collapsed but still panting. The alien crawled off camera while a new ’Goyle walked between the rows and filled his brethren’s place. He knelt, and the new fanner performed as all others. Their leathery wings scooped up the momentum of the southern gusts to fan it ever northward.

Drummond’s vision blurred without a single tear needed. Exhausted, he looked up at da Vinci’s stern face and the little-known quote below it. With his eyestrain worse than ever, only one word came into focus…



Drummond watched the observatory from his car with his air conditioning cranked. The eighteen-wheeler moved in front of the building like a giant eraser, rubbing out the only interesting thing to ever sit on the desert. The dish antenna dragged away on a thick chain latched to the end of the truck’s flatbed. The two huge objects stopped in the dustcloud a safe distance from where the probe’s laser communication landed each day. Now, the infrared beam gently cooked a naked patch of bedrock.

In theory, someone could drive right over the secret spot with a much smaller dish in tow and snatch some data. It would only capture a glimpse of the ’Goyles, though, a few frames peppered with static. Mathias’s dish could catch the entire four-meter width of the beam, but this mostly just reduced interference.

A bulldozer pulled up to the disconnected dish, interrupting Drummond’s number crunching. It stopped and waited for beefy construction workers, men of might and arrogance, to untie the massive chain. After the men--Mathias’s men--dragged the chain away, the bulldozer heaved and rolled the dish onto the flatbed. Mathias owned a whole spectrum of men some days.

Drummond lowered his binoculars. From a kilometer away, the observatory looked like a chucked-out microwave oven, brilliantly petty and inconspicuous. He increased the volume of his laptop which lay upon a heap of dish manuals on the passenger seat. Having it turned down helped him spy and concentrate better. Now, however, he let the video interview fill up his stenchy, lived-in car. He let the noise swirl his mind away from all the desert heat. He basked in the voice of Blair Mathias, rich dude extraordinaire and apparent owner of space itself.

Surely, though, you must have a favorite theory on the wing debate, the lucky interviewer said. The whole world wants to know what the man in charge thinks.

They use their wings for display, Mathias said, a mating ritual they probably keep underground.

Mathias’s words, even their cadence, sounded almost the same as Hefferman’s. His gravelly voice labored too much for a man in his early sixties. If his ego hadn’t killed the probe project, his health probably would.

The other theories on the small wing size sound just as intriguing, Mathias went on. I just hope my committee can unscramble the dying signal so we can learn more. The probe didnt hold up the way my family had hoped all those years ago. We might have a long wait before we see anything else from our interstellar neighbors.

“Committee,” Drummond said through his teeth.

He brushed away a pile of takeout receipts on the dashboard. He found his binoculars on his lap instead, briefly forgotten there. Looking through them again, he spotted a security logo on a car parked by the observatory. It didn’t take a masters degree in spying to know that the place had a guard posted ’round the clock. This would last until the signal really did putter out years from now, for not even Mathias could shut off the probe’s automated laser transmission. The guards would replace each other on 12-hour shifts, much like the ’Goyles taking turns fanning their master’s sanctum. Given the high-end security cameras, no one could ever drive over the beam’s landing site without getting shot. No one would ever know if the ’Goyle king gripped a scepter or a whip.

The interview, and a whole playlist of them, carried on in a closed tab. Drummond couldn’t watch the nonchalant, sunken face of Mathias, that lying gatekeeper’s mouth. He put down the binoculars and spent the rest of the day working on his laptop. He dunked his head through the numbers, the calculations needed to see the live ’Goyles again: GPS data, forecasted wind velocities, and dish antenna modifications. Most of his work revolved around one screenshot, the last bit of footage he had saved to his hard drive before leaving the observatory for good. Every row of the ’Goyles curved, though slightly. The northmost row, in the last frame captured, curved the most. Sixteen years ago, the probe would have changed course to study those concentric rings of worshipers.

And rings had centers.

Nighttime arrived and blackened all the survival junk scattered throughout the car. The laptop screen mostly lit up Drummond’s bony face and some 24 empty water bottles piled on the floor mats. The same Mathias interview replayed when its turn came again in the loop.

Would you consider letting some outside experts try to clean up the recent footage?

Gosh, Mathias said, I wish as much as anyone that governments would run our space programs instead of leaving it to the worlds wealthy and bored. Maybe well return to those olden days. Until then, I prefer to handle the project discretely as my father intended. Otherwise, those outside experts would never get a second of privacy again. Not on this world.


Drummond spent most of the next day looking online for a secondhand hot-air balloon. The price didn’t matter, but he needed one ready-to-ride by Thursday. He had hardly cut into his contractual hush money. Living in his car meant no rent, mortgage, or property taxes. Gas had a shelf life of two years, and he had a trunk full of it to keep the heater running on cold desert nights.

When his body odor became unbearable, like a creature engulfing him, he bathed outside. He used a washbasin and a dishcloth from the dollar store some 20-minute drive into town. The bottled water had barely warmed in the midday heat. Its coldness on his skinny frame felt like a new creature altogether.

He could see over the roof of his car all the little square signs posted around the bigger square of the observatory. The signs all read NO TRESPASSING which he could just make out with the new telescope he had bought. It didn’t matter which security guard worked  today. Day and night hardly mattered, although Earth’s rotation relative to the beam certainly did. Only the timer on his laptop really mattered, the countdown to 4:08 PM on Thursday. On that moment, the invisible beam would reveal whatever the probe had recorded when it soared over the center of the worship zone 16 years ago. The rotting smell from the takeout trays, including the ones blowing around outside his car, didn’t even matter. Drummond’s clothes smelled about as bad anyway. He never knew sweat could rot the way it did in his driver-seat office, when the new sweat layered over the old.

Drummond redressed in those same clothes after his crude sponge bath. He still had to smile, though, because of the two days remaining on the timer. He smiled for the existence of drive-throughs and family packs.

He couldn’t watch the ’Goyles anymore, but he couldn’t stop watching either. Watching Mathias’s desert property, the closest thing to the ’Goyles, would have to do, at least for today.

He went to the trunk and tightened the ropes which kept the lid halfway down. Four layers of tarp hid the satellite dish which could hardly fit inside. A little rain wouldn’t hurt the wiring, but the dish stuck out half a meter from the back of the car. It looked like a giant plastic-wrapped spoon, a novelty for the police to gawk at. Thankfully, they hadn’t pulled him over yet.

The desert had no neighbors or nosy visitors--another thing to smile about today. Drummond spotted the cast iron flagpole on the ground by passenger side. It couldn’t roll anywhere in the wind with its two segments strapped alongside each other, but Drummond checked its position anyway. Checking gave him a tingle of pride. It made his GPS software worth the money, as he had no other way of driving to this same spot after trips to town. Ironically, using the flagpole itself as a marker might draw attention from the guards. He’d hate to lose track of it out here after tying those hazardous poles to his car roof and driving them through the deserted highway. He had waited, parked by the seller’s house until 4 AM, to avoid getting pulled over.

He clambered into the driver seat and resumed his cyber hunt for a hot-air balloon. Every few minutes, he checked the security car’s position. It never approached, and in all likelihood, the police would arrive instead if the guard used a telescope of his own courtesy of Mathias. Drummond wondered if the daytime guard could contact Mathias himself, as Hefferman had done, or if the nighttime guard did instead. Perhaps both guards got paid through a middleman. If so, they’d have no clue what kind of data arrived on the bedrock 12.649 meters outside their workplace. Maybe one worker had gotten hired for his stodginess and authoritarian mindset, like Hefferman. The other, of course, would fit the servile yet driven profile. The minimum two guards, then, would never team up and rebel because of their opposing personalities. Mathias knew his people-chess well.

Drummond found a seller for a supposedly functional hot-air balloon, but it would take a day of driving to get there and back. He still needed to buy a trailer to tow it. Seeking relief from his online dealings, he checked his emails. Hefferman still hadn’t responded to his requests about pestering Mathias. It made perfect sense to bring back the dish antenna, start up the project again, and study the ’Goyle sanctum. Surely by understanding the aliens’ tyrannical culture, humanity would have the best chance to avoid a similar fate.

The emails, however, came back blocked via anti-spam software. The most recent wave of them threatened legal action against spammers perceived as stalkers.

The coffee from town, now cold, tasted like a dead man’s ashes. Drummond had checked online to see if he could live off coffee, but found it didn’t have enough calories. Some days, he lived off it anyway.


Drummond could see far too much from his vantage in the basket of the hot-air balloon. His car and the secondhand trailer hitched to it looked like toys 40 meters below him. Even so, they looked as bone-breakingly hard as the bedrock. He saw the deadly boulders posing as pebbles all across the desertscape. The real fear, though, came from seeing too much of the wicker basket’s inner sides. The whole basket tilted 45 degrees with the horizon, and Drummond had to press his back against the floor which practically served as a wall. He trembled every time he let go of the tied-down flagpole spanning the basket’s upper rim. Most of the pole’s length extended from the handrail like an arm reaching out to the sky. On the flag end, the satellite dish weighed everything down even more. The dish still pointed mostly upward, though, and the rope bundles kept it secure despite adding another 20 pounds.

Another rope tethered the handrail to the rear bumper of his car. Drummond watched the one square knot squeeze itself tighter under the tension from the wind. The mold-spotted instruction manual had told him how to make proper knots, but it also told him to essentially never go hot-air ballooning. Sadly, the beam from space wouldn’t wait for Edenlike conditions.

Drummond smelled of car upholstery and filth in general. The wind, it seemed, detoured around him to keep the stench from blowing away. In his rush to prepare, he had forgotten to buy a pocketknife on his final drive to town (and possibly his final drive anywhere). He brought a few disposable razor blades in his pocket, however, and he shakily took out one of them. He reached up and slashed the tether at the precise second his high-school physics calculations dictated. The rope snapped when only half cut, and the balloon shot eastward. It soared mostly straight up, peaking at 400 meters. Drummond didn’t dare move to look, but he heard the rope slam onto his car’s windshield, breaking it. The red balloon drifted east like a giant, escaped clown nose.

His laptop would have flung around the basket, maybe even slipping right over the tilted side, if he hadn’t duct taped it to the floor. The jolt from the rope cutting tore the tape off from one corner. Gazing up, Drummond’s eyes stung from the brightness of the cherry-red nylon, the flame from the burner, and worst of all, the four o’clock sun. If the ’Goyle tyrant had chosen a sanctum further north, the balloon could have set course in the cool bliss of nighttime. As the fate of both planets would have it, the dish apparatus would only get one chance for a snapshot of the worship zone--and it had to happen at 4:08. The century’s last glimpse of the ’Goyles would come at a cost of petty jailtime, for the day-shift guard liked to pace and look outside. Each day he made shadows cross the observatory’s one window. Even Drummond liked to break away from the monitors to look at the sky.

The hot-air balloon flew directly over the little observatory. Both the wind’s direction and velocity today had agreed with the weather forecast, yet Drummond felt no relief. He could barley move through his fear. He merely turned his head and saw the speck of his car and trailer which he had so carefully positioned a day ago. What did the odds of intercepting the beam matter compared to the greater odds of dying?

All his senses attacked him. He felt the busyness of caffeine and adrenaline running their laps through his body. The cold seemed to freeze his bony fingers to the flagpole. He smelled a freshness and dryness, a forbidden simplicity in the desert wind. He couldn’t tell if it came from the heightened air or his heightened senses, a last desperate grab at life before death. Even the wind felt amplified. It chilled his suit jacket and shirt and went right through to his heart. The wind slapped his face since it couldn’t quite flick him out of the basket. The burner overhead bellowed out a fireball which fought upward through the mouth of the balloon’s skirt. None of the heat or fumes reached Drummond to warm him while he huddled by the propane cylinders.

He checked the dipping flagpole. The dish cables which spiraled around it rattled in the wind but held. They plugged into four  different adapters duct taped to the basket floor. Drummond’s eyes could only jiggle until they settled on the ripples in the red balloon. The nylon caved and flapped on the whims of the atmosphere. He pictured the da Vinci poster, which he had left on the observatory wall, rippling in the wind too. The guard--surely by now--would have left the door open to gaze up. He would see a contraption far dumber than any failed flying machines da Vinci had ever doodled.

Only one view from the basket gave Drummond any comfort at all: the GPS readouts on his laptop. He still had a chance, a wild grasp at data from the beam just eight meters ahead of the dish. In seconds, the wind would sail his balloon right through the beam itself.

He rose into a half crouch, still gripping the flagpole like a terrified monkey. He slammed his crumpled body repeatedly onto the pole, rocking the basket. The dish end barely swayed, but he did lever it slightly toward the center of the beam’s four-meter diameter. Staring at the readouts for guidance, he heard four rifle blasts below him.

The warning shots came from the sheriff’s department or possibly from an overambitious security guard. Drummond kept his head up and in the wind anyway. He couldn’t look down anymore without reeling. The bullets could kill his balloon, kill him even better, but they could never get close to the stars. The ’Goyles would live on no matter what happened, far above the squabbles on Earth.

According to GPS, part of the balloon passed through the beam, but the smaller basket had missed. Drummond ducked and checked his laptop. The data coming in suggested that the dish had swung and pierced the beam like a ridiculous lance. The ramshackle equipment could never match Mathias’s, but the world didn’t need alien life in high definition. Billions worldwide would devour the grainy mess he had snatched from the heavens.

Drummond’s fingers stopped shaking as though the wind had frozen them stiff. He channeled each tremble downward, delivering the keystrokes the world so needed. More gunfire ripped through the air around him while a full second of staticky video played on his laptop. It ran just long enough, even with its missing frames, to show one beat of the ’Goyles’ wings. A circle of them knelt, barely fitting in the borders of the screen. In the center of their innermost ring, a massively pregnant ’Goyle lay supine on an octagonal bed of sand.

Her abdomen swelled, as did her hips. The womb must have held over a dozen fetuses, more if they came out smaller than humans. Her taller build defied every other ’Goyle form caught from the cosmos and studied. Her thicker legs lay crossed, as though comfortable. Although the grainy image made her look even more like a mythical creature of stone, the static couldn’t hide the softness of her skin. The endless circles of males fanned her, blowing the harsh world’s heat off her body.

The numbers shot into Drummond’s eyes again, his altitude in particular. The balloon dropped fast. He broke his trance and looked up at the rippling red envelope. It sunk in where the bullets had torn through. He hunched over his laptop like the most dutiful ’Goyle onscreen. He quickly uploaded the footage to three different video-sharing websites. A one-second clip didn’t take long to process. His username, Galactic Stalker, would attract no real attention for a while. In time, however, Earth and all her pupils would notice.

Despite some muffled yelling through a bullhorn far below, Drummond reached up and pulled the trigger on the blast valve. He hanged off it with all of his 136 pounds. The balloon climbed somehow higher until the flame died out. Most jails probably served coffee with breakfast, and jailhouse coffee beat no coffee at all. If his skull and spine didn’t break in the crash, he could relish the bitter brew with his senses forever heightened.

Mainly, though, he needed the height. He needed the most damaging drop possible. Drummond released the trigger and tore the laptop free from its wires and duct tape. Mathias would wrest it from the police, of course, and Hefferman would get a new contract just to search through its files. But Hefferman didn’t deserve such fun. At 440 meters, the balloon started to plummet again. With too little time to delete the hard drive and with fingers too cold to break it, Drummond threw the laptop over the side. It shattered on the bedrock below.

A short time later, so did the basket.


Drummond rolled across the ground, but not far--not far enough to kill him. He bled mildly on both legs and one arm, but not from any bones poking through the skin. In the sudden calm, the stench of his clothes made him grimace more than the pain did. He sat up and noticed that the dipping flagpole with its comical dish for a flag had struck the ground fist. It had absorbed some energy from the crash like a spring. A swarm of policemen trampled over the debris and dodged the falling half-deflated balloon.

They hauled him up and frog marched him to a desert pilgrimage of police vans. Hefferman ran up and huffed alongside them, sweating like a wrestler.

“Charting out the stars, Drummond?” Hefferman asked.

“Just following a few instruction manuals,” Drummond replied.

“Well you sure didn’t follow mine,” Hefferman said. “I told you to read the contract.”

“I did.” Drummond scuffed his feet until the flanking officers had to drag him. “The penalties only apply for footage gathered while working for, eh, Blair.”

“Nice. So you’ll only get charged with trespassing and flying a Rube Goldberg balloon.”

The police helped Drummond onto a gurney just outside a waiting ambulance. The grumpy paramedics strapped him down for stability given the rough terrain, though the straps make their wild-haired patient look completely insane.

Hefferman looked at another pair of officers picking up and bagging parts of the shattered laptop. He snapped his head back to Drummond.

“Did you see the big guy?” he quickly asked. His brow looked shiny and wishful.

Drummond laughed silently, and it started to hurt. Every part of him hurt worse with the shock wearing off.

“Come on, Drummond,” Hefferman pleaded. “You think I haven’t made the same coordinate calculations myself? You think I didn’t how special this particular hour would become? Did you see the big T? The you-know-what?”

“Leave the projecting to the probes, Heff,” Drummond said.

“You mean we got it wrong?” Hefferman asked. He looked as excited as a six-year-old on Christmas morning.

“You’ll see,” Drummond said as the paramedics hauled the gurney into the ambulance. Two policemen crammed in with them. “And you’ll change. So will your paranoid assumptions. Even stone can change. Whole planets too, with enough time.”

The words, though rehearsed, felt wrong. Drummond could see his smashed laptop through the evidence bag as the police carried it away, and that felt wrong too. That greatest gift, the most coveted knowledge, had smacked the ground like a slap in Hefferman’s face. A paramedic slammed one of the back doors of the ambulance. Drummond tried to think of a hint, something that would give Hefferman the most wonderful knowledge a man could ever ask for, a surprise that would stay in his eyes forever.

“Come on,” Hefferman said. He looked to the cosmos past all the hazy blue sky. The paramedic reached for the other door. “What did you see? Just a hint? From the man who did something?”

“A woman who did something,” Drummond said.