Cal sat down at the kitchen table, his eyes feeling grainy. He took a sip of coffee and watched Mia try and spoon pulped carrots into Liam’s mouth. He missed the days before Liam, when they sat out on the porch, drank coffee together, and talked about the day to come. If he didn’t say something now, he’d never get to. Mornings like this would be the rest of his life.
“I think we should integrate with the Gelephir. I…want to become a part of it,” he said.
Mia looked at him like he’d suggested they abandon their lives and join the circus.
“You cannot get absorbed by an alien consciousness Cal,” Mia said. “We have a son.” She gestured at Liam with the spoon. “I have the store.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to integrate with it. I said I want us to. I want to be with you, to really know you.”
She laughed and took a break from feeding their son so she could take a bite of her own breakfast.
“We’ve been together for nine years. I think you know me,” she said.
“Don’t you just think…” he trailed off. He didn’t know what to say.
“What?” she said.
She spooned more carrots into Liam’s mouth. He accepted them placidly this time. Cal took a sip of coffee and Mia watched him intently. She was still on reduced caffeine. She’d missed coffee dearly throughout her pregnancy. Cal had considered stopping drinking it as well in solidarity, but he’d dismissed the idea. He needed something to get him through the day. He sold software that helped companies with rentable assets keep track of where all their stuff was. It was not exciting work. He didn’t know how he’d make it through the day if he gave up coffee as a meaningless gesture.
“Haven’t you always said that you wish we could communicate better? That’s what becoming part of the Gelephir would be. We’d be able to perfectly communicate with one another. No more misunderstandings. No more bickering. It would be pure, absolute knowledge of each other. Don’t you want that? Don’t you want to know, like truly know who I am?”
She shoveled some egg into her mouth and then gave Liam another spoonful. This time he rejected it and slapped the spoon from her hand. It clattered to the floor and sprayed baby food across the wood.
“Liam, why? Why can you not just eat your food. I know you want it.”
Mia stood up and went to the kitchen for a paper towel. She came back and retrieved Liam’s spoon from the floor. She cleaned the mess with the paper towel, and then with the spoon, scooped a new glop of baby food with which to try again.
“Can you please answer me?” Cal said.
“Liam can’t. You know that,” she said.
Astronomers detected the Gelephir around the time it crossed Saturn’s orbit. They believed it was a novel celestial phenomenon, a gas cloud moving much faster than a comet. In a way, they’d been right. It was novel, but it wasn’t just fast-moving gas. It was a living, thinking being. The Gelephir was a stellar traveler capable of absorbing and integrating the minds of other life forms. It traversed the universe looking for new minds to absorb and did so with very little discretion. Any consciousness, no matter how divergent from its own, broadened the scope of its existence. It didn’t care if you were a murderer, a death cultist, a hedge fund manager. It would take you into itself, so long as you chose to do so.
It would remain in orbit for six months, just a few days left now. During this time, any individual human who wanted to integrate with it could. They only had to express their interest, ideally through the Internet, but any form of contact was fine. There were news stories of the Gelephir answering the S.O.S. of a man stranded on a desert island, so its reach was obviously considerable. When the time was up, the Gelephir would move on to the next likely inhabited world to see if anyone there was thinking complex thoughts and interested in traveling the universe.
“So, that’s it?” Cal said.
“I mean, that’s just the reality, babe. We have a son,” Mia said.
Liam wasn’t yet a year old. Cal didn’t even want him. It felt cruel on a cosmic scale that Cal would be denied this opportunity by his own son just because the kid didn’t know what was happening and couldn’t yet form a coherent thought. Mia might as well have said that they couldn’t integrate because they owned a dog. Cal looked at his son. Liam didn’t look back, he just put his hand in a blob of baby food and spread it around, making a mess. The Gelephir revealed that the universe was endless and full of wonders to explore. Humans were insignificant on their own. Cal was one mind. He would live for a few decades more and then die, his brief time on Earth unmarked. The Gelephir was his chance to be part of something that mattered, that lasted.
“He’s just a baby,” Cal said.
“Exactly, and we’re his parents. It’s our job to build a world where he can become who he wants to be. Even if the Gelephir would take him, he’d never become his own person. I’m sorry, babe, but this is just where we are,” she said.
Cal got up and put his dishes in the sink. He knew he should put them in the dishwasher, but the idea of doing so made him feel even more exhausted.
“I need to get going,” he said, then started for the door.
Mia got up and followed. She hugged him.
“Hey,” she said. “I don’t want this to be a fight. We can talk about it more tonight. But I need you to know that you’re enough for me. You and Liam are everything. I love you so much. I know we feel small in the face of this, but you’re as vast as the universe to me.”
Cal didn’t know what to say to that because he didn’t believe her. He couldn’t because she was nothing like that to him. She was just a person, one he liked very much, but it was silly and romantic and little insulting that she would call him that, knowing that he was just one man. She had to know that he knew she was lying. It was impossible to feel that way about someone. She was just trying to soften the miserable blow of trapping him here with Liam while an eternity among the stars was within reach.
They’d talk about it later, he supposed. There was still time to convince her. But now he really did need to get to work.
Cal poured himself a coffee and added sugar and creamer. He ignored his coworker, who stared while he kept adding creamer.
“Basically milk at this point,” the man said.
Cal ignored him and went back to his desk. For a few blessed hours, he worked on emails and accounts, plugging numbers into spreadsheets. The only thing that he liked about his job was that the grunt work involved could be done by a gerbil. He could sip his coffee, turn his brain off, and wake up on the other side, the morning finished. Afternoons were worse, that was when he made most of his client calls, and each of those felt like a Sisyphean torment. The story of Sisyphus was wasted on kids learning about mythology in their home room classes. It was only after college, settling into life with Mia, that Cal appreciated its meaning. Every day there were dishes, three meals to prepare, laundry, driving the same route to work and back, and doing this job.
Cal didn’t make it to the afternoon before his day soured further. Around ten, his boss called him in. Cal sat in one of the chairs opposite his boss, a massive maple desk between them. The leather of both their seats squeaked under their weight. His boss looked especially grim this morning.
“Do you know why I wanted to speak with you Cal?” he said.
“No, sir,” Cal said.
His boss heaved a sigh. Then he turned his monitor so that Cal could see. On it were graphs of all the sales reps and their numbers from the past few months. Cal’s numbers had always been middling but steady, until recently when they’d begun to drop.
“Your numbers are way down,” his boss said. It was a factual statement, not open to debate. “What do you think is causing this?”
“I’m just having a little trouble focusing lately,” Cal said.
His boss nodded, took a sip of coffee, looked at him.
“These are unprecedented times,” he said. “Unfortunately, the wheels of industry keep turning, regardless of the age. World Wars, Cold Wars, pandemics, alien invasion, we keep working through all of it because that’s how we keep the lights on, that’s how we pay to defend ourselves from those exterior threats, that’s how we secure a financial future for the next generation,” he said.
“Invasion?” Cal asked.
“Of course,” his boss said. “We don’t know why it’s really here. We don’t know what it really wants.”
“I think it just wants to expand its consciousness, experience new things,” Cal said.
“But we have no proof that it even is what it says it is. This absorption nonsense might be a trick to get us to line up like we’re a buffet. Or maybe it really does want to absorb us so that it can learn all our secrets and use them to destroy us. Whatever it really wants, it’s not just here to give us a free ticket to space. There’s something else going on. We’re at war. We just haven’t admitted it yet.”
Cal didn’t know what to say to that. People all over the world had been making arguments against the Gelephir since the moment it made its proposition. Some believed it was sent by Satan to tempt us out of our garden. Some believed that it was God, and that if even a single sinner was allowed to integrate, then all of humanity would be damned. Cal had heard his boss’s “absorb our secrets” argument before. It was the fall back for people who thought the world as already run by deep state lizards. It wasn’t just the religious and paranoid who were confused and disturbed by the Gelephir’s arrival. The atheists didn’t know what to do either. Many saw humankind as an evil blight upon the world, morally obligated to integrate, as if the Gelephir was a cosmic delouser. Others thought human beings were preternaturally violent and would corrupt this pure celestial being with our selfish and cowardly urges. The Gelephir bore all these arguments against it, and all those against humanity, with indifference. It seemed not to care what we thought, or why. It was content to give us a little time to puzzle it out for ourselves, and then move on.
“I don’t know. I kind of wish I could. I’d like to travel the galaxy.”
His boss looked at him a little harder.
“Come on, Cal. You’re smarter than that.”
Cal felt like the butt of a joke, like he’d bought into something everyone else knew was a scam.
“Put that alien nonsense aside. Focus on your work. One bad month? Not a crisis. We all go through our rough patches. But if I see numbers like this again, you and I are going to need to have a more serious conversation.”
“I understand, sir. Won’t happen again,” Cal said. He felt sick. He wanted a coffee but wasn’t sure if it would still his nerves or excite them.
“All right,” his boss said. “You coming for beers tonight?”
“I can’t. Mia and I have a date planned,” Cal said.
“Oh. That’s nice,” he said.
Cal chuckled uncomfortably and stood.
“Good talk, Cal. Let’s see you top those charts next month.”
Cal pumped his fist and let out a gentle raw, instantly regretting the sound, the motion, and the faux camaraderie. The man just told him to get it together or get sacked, and then he turned around and gave a pathetic little cheer. If Cal could cease to exist right there, he would.
Mia owned a store in the mall, which was a fifteen-minute walk from their house. She sold candles, canvas totes, t-shirts, and crystals. It was all junk, not that that was bad. The store made her happy. She came home every day talking about this or that woman who came in looking for the perfect special thing for her spouse, her kids, her book group. Mia would spend hours with her customers, making them tea, giving them a tour of the store, telling them about the unique origins of each and every product. Cal was happy for her, to have something she loved so much. He wished he had something like that for himself.
He parked the car down the street to avoid the paid parking, and texted Mia that he was waiting. When she hadn’t responded after ten minutes, he got out and walked to the store. When he arrived, Mia was excitedly walking a customer through the varieties of bee’s wax candles. They were locally sourced, and the labels were done by a local artist who also had some work in the gallery on the other side of the mall.
“Cal, hey!” she said as he pushed through the store doors. “This lady is getting supplies for her son’s wedding. Isn’t that exciting!”
“Oh, yeah that’s very cool. Congratulations. Babe, I’ve been waiting in the car for twenty minutes.”
Mia looked at her watch.
“Oh no! I’m sorry I lost track of time. I’m so sorry ma’am, I should have closed ten minutes ago,” Mia said.
“I’m so sorry. Let me get out of your hair,” the customer said.
“No, no, no. Let’s get you squared away. He can wait another minute. Get your son these candles, they’re perfect for the dinner tables. And don’t forget, I also have these balms and honey jars. You’re doing welcome bags for the guests, right?”
Cal meandered around the store, trying to stay out of Mia’s way while she heaped more and more products onto the customer. She was a good salesperson. Cal might think everything in the store was expensive junk, but Mia believed in it, and she could make anyone else believe in it, too. The process took time though. She had a story about every single thing in the store, and since the subject of this customer’s visit was her son’s wedding, Mia mined their own wedding for emotional hooks. Every moment of intimacy, every laughable mistake, every anxiety and frustration was on display for this woman so that she might be persuaded to buy a set of thank-you cards pressed with real flowers. Eventually, Cal gave up and retreated to the back room to use the computer.
The Internet had only one focus these days. Since the moment the Gelephir arrived it was all anyone wanted to talk about. Strange as it was, it seemed to Cal like the Internet was the only sane place. It was as if polite society had repressed all knowledge of the Gelephir so that it could keep on selling napkins and tracking software. Cal supposed they had a lot of practice. The world had been burning for decades. But was Cal a farmer? Was he a fire fighter? Was he a refugee advocate? Nope. He drove a car to work by himself. He lived on a cul-de-sac. He sold software. The market blundered on, making its money. The arrival of the Gelephir was no different.
But on Twitter, people engaged in the great debate over what to do. Some used it to let the Gelephir know they wanted to integrate. It was known that the alien monitored the Internet. On YouTube and TikTok, people posted videos of their integrations. They set the camera up in a corner, told the Gelephir they wanted to be absorbed, and then waited while a purple shimmering mist seeped in through an open door or window. The mist would gather around them, thickening into a cloud too dense to see through. Then it would dissipate, the person gone. The videos would either continue to show the empty room, or a crying family member would appear briefly to turn off the camera. Cal ached with jealousy watching others escape. Before he knew it, over an hour had passed. Mia finally came to find him in the back room.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Once we got going, we just couldn’t stop. That woman spent a thousand dollars. I love when people come in to buy for big events. Should we get going?”
Cal looked at the clock. It was almost eight.
“We only have the sitter for another twenty minutes,” he said.
“Oh, shoot. Maybe we can order a pizza. Watch a movie.”
“As if,” he said.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Mia said.
“We can’t make it three minutes through a movie without Liam interrupting.”
“So, we pause and then start again. It’s not a big deal,” she said.
Like always, a date night with just the two of them and a chance to really talk dissolved into another night at home. Cal wondered if she did this on purpose. She could easily have manipulated that woman into staying. And she knew that by doing so, he’d get bored and get on the Internet and they’d lose their sitter.
“Whatever,” he said.
“Whatever? Look, I didn’t mean to go over. Seriously. I just got excited about this wedding and I wanted them to have all the things that would help make it a perfect event. I messed up. But hey. We made a thousand bucks in the last hour. That’s enough money for a dozen date nights.”
“I don’t want to go on a date! I wanted to talk about the alien, like you said we would. I wanted to have a real discussion about it with just you and me as adults. It’s only going to be here for another day and then it’ll be gone, for a billion years, and you and I and Liam will all be dead by the end of the century, like we never even existed.”
“Liam will have more time than that,” Mia said.
“You can’t believe that,” Cal said.
“Yes, I can.”
“Nothing will be here that long. You might be able to pretend the world is fine while you’re in here helping people plan a wedding, but it’s not, and it’s not going to be. If Liam is alive, if any of us are alive in forty years, we’ll be slaves to some warlord. We’ll die of dysentery or because someone bashes our heads in with rocks so they can steal our place by the fire.”
She was crying.
“Don’t say that. It’s going to be okay. The world might not look like it did when we were kids but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be some Mad Max hellscape.”
Cal put his hands on her shoulders.
“We have this one tiny chance to escape, and you won’t let us take it,” he said. He was out of breath. His heart felt like it had doubled in size, like it was fighting his organs for space even as his chest shrunk.
“I don’t believe that,” she said. “And even if I did, Liam can’t go. The Gelephir wouldn’t let him. You know that. If the world is going to be so awful, how could you consider leaving him behind? How could you go on this galactic cruise knowing your son is dying back on this planet you hate so much?”
Cal was tired. He wished he had a cup of coffee. He just wanted to get home, eat something, and go to bed.
“Let’s go. We shouldn’t keep the sitter waiting,” he said.
Mia just stared at him in horrified silence as he walked out of the store. He didn’t pause to make sure she followed.
Mia could sleep, but Cal couldn’t. He was plagued by a memory from his high school trip to New York, and the brief twenty minutes he spent waiting outside the planetarium. In the atrium was a ramp that spiraled down two floors. And along this spiral was a timeline of the universe, from its explosive moment of origin to the present. Down at the very end of that long ramp was a single human hair suspended in glass. Its width represented the entirety of human existence. The exhibit was frank in saying that truthfully, this hair was a gross exaggeration. Mankind’s time was truly nothing, but people didn’t come to museums to look at nothing.
He couldn’t stop thinking about that hair, that small and insignificant thing. It could exist or it could vanish. Beside the rest of existence, it didn’t matter one bit. His species might have the power to kill a planet, but it turned out that wasn’t so hard. All he wanted was to matter. He didn’t know how Mia could sleep. The Gelephir would be gone this time tomorrow. It was going to feel like a terrible dream. He knew that if he didn’t join with it, he would hate himself for the rest of his miserable little life.
Little Liam was crying in his crib. Mia stirred and poked Cal with one of her dagger sharp toes.
“You’re turn,” she muttered.
Cal got out of bed. Liam needed a diaper change. No matter how many times Cal helped his son, he still gagged his way through the process. He hated that he was truly a machine for turning food into energy and shitting out the rest. He got Liam changed, but the baby wouldn’t stop crying. They walked around the house together, Cal gently bobbing his son up and down to try and get him to go to sleep. Cal knew that he wouldn’t get any sleep tonight, but still, he wished Liam would just shut up. He had a clean diaper. What more did he want? He was so exhaustingly difficult. And for what? All they did was bring one more person into the world, one more meaningless little food processor, and crucially, one who’s infantile brain would now prevent Cal from joining with the Gelephir.
Unless…Liam didn’t exist anymore.
“Tell you what, buddy,” said Cal. “I just had an idea that will help you stop crying. In fact, it’s gonna solve a lot of your problems, and mine, too. Give me just a minute, and I’ll draw you up a bath.”
He took Liam back to the bathroom and set him on the floor. He closed the door and put a few towels over his son’s face so Mia wouldn’t wake from the continued crying. Then he drew the bath. It was agonizing. He kept the water running slowly to minimize the noise. It took long enough that he almost didn’t carry on. He felt sick. But he knew Liam would forgive him, or at the very least, Liam wouldn’t know that Cal needed forgiving. Cal was nothing, Liam even less. But together, they could ensure that one of them made it off this planet and became a part of something greater. When the bath was ready, Cal untangled his son from the blankets and plunged him into the water.
“Mia,” Cal whispered. She didn’t stir. “Mia,” he repeated. Nothing.
“God dammit, wake up!” he said.
Mia shot up.
“What? What is it? Is it Liam? Is he okay?”
“Yeah. Of course,” he lied. “Listen, about what you said. About how Liam can’t choose to join with the Gelephir, which means he can’t go, which means we can’t go, and it’s all fucked. Well, I solved it. I solved the problem. We can join with the alien. We should do it now. We should go.”
She sat up and turned on the lamp on her nightstand. She put on her glasses.
“Have you been crying?” she said. “Cal, what is going on?”
“I solved our problem. We can join with the alien. We just have to let it know we want to,” he said. He leaned in and kissed her. “I’m so excited. Soon there will be nothing between us. We’ll be part of the same mind and have no secrets. We’ll finally understand each other.”
She lifted her glasses and rubbed her eyes.
“Hon’ you don’t look so good. Have you gotten any sleep tonight? Let me make you some tea.”
She shifted from under the covers.
“You’re not listening,” Cal said.
“It’s the middle of the night and you’re rambling at me. Just give me a second. I’ll make some tea and we can talk about whatever it is. Okay? I’m just gonna pee and then I’ll make us some tea.”
Before he could react, she was across the room and in the hallway. She was opening the bathroom door and he screamed, “Don’t go in there!”
It was too late. He could see in the expression of confused horror on her face that she had seen Liam. She didn’t scream, but her mouth seemed locked open as if her jaw recoiled from what she saw. Tears flooded her eyes. Cal had never been so scared as he was in that moment when she looked back at him. He’d never seen hatred so pure and clear.
“This is a good thing -” he began, but she was already attacking him. She beat his chest with her fists, kicked his shins. She was screaming, nothing coherent, just the cries of a loving parent who had identified her child’s killer. He tried to defend himself. He kept his hands between them, uttered calming noises and asked for the space to explain, but she was beyond that. She was a more violent and powerful thing than he’d ever seen. And then, she gave him a shove and he was tumbling, down and down the stairs. He felt something in his arm break, then a crack on his head, and another, each sensation more disorienting and terrifying than the last. Before he finally passed out, he could see her, standing at the top of the staircase, looking down at him. He’d never felt more insignificant.
He woke to an unsettling sensory dimness. The world felt soft, though it was bright, and pain lanced in his arm and in his head. He tried to gasp but found his mouth taped. He tried to remove it and found his arms strapped to his sides. He was bound in cheap yellow rope, three kinds of tape, plastic wrap, and a variety of electrical cords. He was on his back in the bathtub, his head barely above the water. Liam’s body had been removed. Cal’s heart started pounding, matching the panic that rushed through him and further dulled the pain of his injuries. He needed to breathe, but all he could do was hyper-ventilate through his nostrils.
Mia sat on the toilet. In one arm, she cradled their son’s body. With her free hand, she held her phone. Cal mumbled through the tape. She looked at him, and he felt small, just like he had at the base of the stairs right before blacking out.
“I just sent an email to myself,” Mia said. “It says: Dear Gelephir, I would like to integrate with you. Please find me as soon as possible. I don’t know how long it will take but I hope it’s soon.”
Cal wanted to scream. Who did she think she was? She didn’t even care about the alien. If it weren’t for him, she’d have no interest in it. She’d be on her way to work right now at her stupid fucking store to sell idiotic things to idiotic people. She was nothing without him.
“You two were everything to me,” she said. “I had the whole world. Or at least I thought I did. But it turns out you were smaller than I ever could have imagined. I don’t care what happens to you, Cal. I don’t care if you drown right in front of me. I don’t care if a neighbor finds your body. I don’t even care if you find your way out of this situation and live a long and fruitful life. I loved you. Now I’m leaving, and I’m going to take from you what is clearly the only thing you ever wanted.”
She stood and backed away. A shimmering purple cloud made its way through the open window. She set Liam’s body down on Cal’s chest. The added weight was enough to cause Cal to struggle. He could now barely keep his head above the water. The purple smoke curled around his wife. Cal screamed, his mouth stretching the tape as much as it would allow. All he had to do was remove the tape and say out loud that he wanted to integrate. The Gelephir was right there. All he had to do was speak the words, even sign that he consented, and he would be taken by the alien and spared this miserable end.
Mia didn’t even say goodbye as the smoke coalesced around her and then dissipated back out through the window with her essence in tow, leaving him to slowly sink under the weight his son’s dead body.
Copyright © 2022 Patrick Lofgren