Under cover of night, our village moves across the steppe.
Aliya leads the way. Her whistle is high and in harmony with the wind, so an untrained ear would ignore the sound. But we, the hushed and listening herd, heed the falconer’s call for what it is. Aliya trained golden eagles long before the invaders came, and her flock travels with us still. Her brother Alibek had the idea to strap small cameras to their chests, to use them as scouts in our ceaseless tracking of the alien forces. We plundered an abandoned electronics shop in Saryagash together to get the equipment, in a rare plunge back into the ruins of human civilization before we rejoined the village on the plains.
When Aliya confirms a clear path with an untouched radius of at least 200 kilometers, she signals the flank captains, and we begin to move as a many-limbed unit, the wheels of the mechanized yurts creaking forward, the cows and sheep and horses and a few camels snuffling and bleating as their keepers urge them forward, the stray dogs dodging and darting under hooves and feet.
I’m always with Alibek and Yura and Ramazan and Gaini, overseeing the operation of the yurts and their various modifications. We’re the inventors, the tinkerers, the little team always armed with our toolboxes and indefatigable can-do spirit, even after twenty hours on the move. Should anything go wrong during the migration, should a lever catch or a cart get caught in a rut, we leap into action, patching and fixing and trying any and all solutions for keeping the village in motion. We’ve kept up the pace ever since the invasion six months ago, kept the four hundred remaining residents of what used to be Zhuldyz safe by running, running through heat and rain and mud, though not yet snow. We left our cell phones behind, anything that could be traced. Any object that could be misconstrued as a weapon, in case we were given the chance to surrender. We could have split up, sought greater security in smaller numbers, but scattering across the steppe would have meant starvation or injury or death for many of the villagers, including me. The village carries me now when I need it, when my hip gives way and I can’t walk, when Alibek can no longer hold me up. In Kazakh the word for “family” is the same as the word for the fire that burns at the heart of the yurts, the fire that nourishes and warms and comforts in the tenebrous steppe. It’s that spark that keeps us going. It’s that fire that keeps our village alive.
In the early days panic shot through me every time an axle cracked or the improvised supports of the yurts gave way. Now, though, the course almost always runs smoothly, and I handle aberrations with calm. It doesn’t pay to panic. Panic slows me down. Panic kills my instincts. If I let my hands guide me—the same hands that have always known what my body needed and how to build it—I find the rift and the way to heal it swiftly. I force into place what must be mended until my knuckles swell, and ask Alibek for help once my fingers are too sore and cramped to continue.
Alibek and I rarely leave each other’s side. He can’t always hear Aliya’s whistle because he’s deaf in his right ear, so I make sure I’ve got a good grip on his hand when we’re waiting for her sign. I press my thumb into his palm as the lilting sound comes over the steppe, passing the cue between us like a pulse in the dark. “Roger that, Jack,” he whispers back to me, using one of his favorite expressions. He’s always peppering his speech with new English slang and phrasing he’s picked up, refining his idioms and getting ever-closer to sounding like he could be a Chicagoan like me or Molly.
Alibek and I still talk in the Russian-Kazakh-English-sign-language mix we started using when I moved to southern Kazakhstan over a year ago, often between snorts of laughter, because no one makes me laugh harder than Ali. When I started teaching English alongside him at the local high school, Alibek was the one who made the long days better. Even now, when we’re grimy and tired and worried about food a good deal of the time, he’s smiling, and trying to cheer me up, and drawing me new episodes of my favorite anime by hand because we haven’t been anywhere near a TV for months.
We saw a few of them at the electronics store back in Saryagash, after we’d raided the pharmacy in town for necessary supplies, including precious painkillers and anti-inflammatories for me. Nothing there had been shut down, so the place was buzzing with monitors still occasionally beeping and brightly lit phones on display. Alibek had rolled his eyes. “And now of course the electricity is on.” Back when I was living with Alibek’s family in Zhuldyz, we dealt with blackouts all the time, but Saryagash still teemed with electronic life two months after the starships landed. That was the only kind of life we’d seen in the town’s once-crowded streets. Even the animals had the good sense to stay out in the steppe.
“It’s good, though.” Ali crouched down to examine a row of digital camcorders in a glass case. “We can test what works.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Can you set up one of those tablets?”
“Sure.” I walked behind the counter to pick up an iPad, pressing my thumb to its power button. It awoke and hummed in my hands.
My eyes darted to the top left of the screen. Wi-Fi. It was still picking up Wi-Fi. Somewhere in this place, a router was working.
“See if there is a program on there we can use.” Ali’s instructions floated up from where he squatted on the floor. “If not, Gaini can hack it. We will bring her what we find and she can build something for us.”
“Mm-hmm.” I swiped to the second page of icons, my eyes searching out one particular symbol. I found it, and pressed my finger against the bright blue “S.”
Skype opened, and I entered my username, the familiar motion unnerving. I hadn’t typed anything, much less my old sign-in info, for weeks and weeks. I used to be on Skype every other night when I first moved to Kazakhstan. Even though the connection was shoddy, even though the time difference was impossible, it was the best way to communicate with home.
My contacts list popped up. I scrolled, and there she was. The picture had been taken at her birthday party a few years ago, and she was laughing, her smile wide as we brought her in her cake. I’d baked that cake, with my mom’s help, because it was hard for me to be on my feet for the length of time it took to complete a full recipe. We’d presented it to Molly and she’d lit up, laughing at our off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Someone—my dad, probably—had captured the moment, had captured Molly’s inimitable smile. Even though she was in pain a good deal of the time, just like me, Molly always smiled like everything was right in the world, a broad, cheek-to-cheek grin that probably lit up rooms several states over.
My fingertip hovered over her avatar for a moment before I pushed down on the call button. I knew I shouldn’t give the invaders any signal to trace. I knew the risks. But this little shop was surely sending off small electronic signals they had ignored. One more blip in the midst of all the chatter would go unnoticed.
I was rationalizing. I knew it, but I couldn’t help myself. My own icon popped up on the screen, a thin line linking it to Molly’s. Connecting. Connecting.
I held my breath. Below me Alibek dropped an object to the ground with a thud. Connecting. Connecting.
I pushed again. “Got it, Jack?”
“Working on it.” Connecting.
“Let’s try it out. We shouldn’t stay here much longer.”
“Jack? We should go soon.”
The alien invasion was televised, but everyone called it fake news.
That’s what Molly told me back in March, anyway. “It was just this group trying to stir up some Orson Welles, War of the Worlds-type panic out in Québec,” she told me over Skype. “You know, when he produced it as a radio play in the ‘30s, and people freaked out because they thought the broadcast was real? You had some people who supposedly bought into it, but I don’t know, I think they mostly went along with it because it was fun. Millennium Park was full of cosplayers getting into it, and there was this whole theater group doing a live version of La Planète Sauvage. I thought you’d appreciate that deep cut.”
Molly almost always Skyped me from the same spot in her dorm room at the University of Chicago, with her Klimt poster in the background and her roommate occasionally passing through. The image on my end was unchanging, too: Alibek had rigged up an Ethernet cord to allow me to access the Internet from my bedroom on the second floor, but the only way he could make it work was by running it outside, from the family computer downstairs to my window. So I was stuck there when my laptop was plugged in, and Molly’s view of me was always against the hanging orange and brown carpet on the wall, the traditional decoration for pretty much every apartment in Kazakhstan.
“We haven’t heard much about it here,” I told Molly, shifting as my knee twinged, the way it did when I’d been sitting too long. “But it’s not just the Canada thing—did you see the St. Petersburg video? I caught a bunch of kids watching it in class today.”
The clip I’d seen on the students’ phone screens was short, only 30 seconds. It showed nothing but the iconic onion domes of the Спас на Крови, set against a clear blue sky, as if someone were filming from right at the cathedral’s base. Suddenly an object zoomed overhead: a ship, sleek and triangular, made of a black material that seemed to absorb all light, a void moving across the screen. It vanished from the frame, and the video ended, cutting off in the middle of the videographer’s shouted reaction in Russian.
It could have been anything. The oddness of the angle and the briefness of the clip stank of manufactured news, which had been getting more and more realistic these past few years. In the States, Molly told me, they were perfecting software that could imitate anyone’s voice and face on video, given enough data on the person. I’d already started teaching workshops at the high school about watching news critically, checking for secondary sources and not believing the slew of strange reports that made it all the way out to rural Kazakhstan by very slow Internet. The rumors were usually no more harmful than a shocking celebrity death, but they ranged into the political, from rumors of unrest in regions that were actually peaceful to the reverse, depending on the picture Moscow wanted to paint.
“Yeah, they’ve been taking down all the videos here,” Molly said. “But I hear there are ones from Cape Town and Buenos Aires, too. Some group out there is putting a lot of effort into trying to make a real-life science fiction film, clearly.”
I stretched my arms above my head. “Well, if aliens are real, I just hope they don’t attack before May.” That’s when I was due back for a visit to the States. I’d been serving in the Peace Corps for the past six months, driven by a desire to travel coupled with the need for comprehensive healthcare. The Peace Corps offered that deal, although when I showed up in country I learned it wasn’t as comprehensive as they’d claimed. After all the medical tests and specialist visits I’d endured while applying, they still told me my first day, without warning or apology, that they wouldn’t be providing me the pain medication I needed to manage my genetic joint condition because it was schedule IV, a controlled substance. I’d traveled for twenty-four hours with my legs aching and my heavy suitcase in hand to get to Almaty, and I considered, right then, turning back around. Maybe my mom had been right. Maybe this was too hard, a step too far. Maybe I needed to be close by to my family, to Molly, my sister, who understood, who helped me the way I helped her in getting through a world that wasn’t set up for the way we moved, the way we needed to live.
But I’d stayed. I’d stayed, and I’d trained to teach, and I’d moved in with Alibek and Aliya and their mom and dad and grandmother once I was assigned to the high school in the village of Zhuldyz, only three hundred miles or so from where my great-great-uncle Nicholas Eliades once labored at a camp for political exiles in the 1940s. Molly mailed me the medication I needed, even though the packages were sometimes stolen on the way, and I modified my cane to hold up against the broken sidewalks and slushy puddles of Zhuldyz’s streets, lined with Soviet-style apartment buildings and low houses with gated gardens. I found that village life suited me, and I spent lazy hours playing cards with Alibek or watching cartoons with Aliya or helping Yura, their Russian neighbor, work on the many cars in his garage. I’d always been good with machines. I’d led my robotics team in high school, and even though I was a history major in undergrad, I kept working on my own projects in my free time. Molly and I designed all kinds of adaptive devices together, from grabbers with different grips and functions to canes with built-in cup holders. I’d thought for a while Molly, who was smart in a far more focused, determined way than me, might go into engineering, but she’d chosen pre-med instead. “You know how many terrible doctors I’ve dealt with,” she told me. “I’d like to be one of the good ones. There should be more disabled doctors out there, ones who get what it’s like.”
Molly was about to graduate from U of C, which was why I was going back for two weeks. I’d hated leaving her to move away, but she’d encouraged me to go despite the difficulty, despite the fact that we had always been each other’s support system. “You can do this, Jack. You should do this. Don’t worry. We’ll still be here when you get back.”
On the screen, Molly’s pixilated image smiled. “Okay. If I see any aliens, I’ll tell them to hold off. I can’t wait to see you, Jack. We’ve missed you a lot.”
I smiled back. Only a couple more months, and I would be home, and nearly halfway through my two-year service. “I can’t wait, either.”
Molly’s graduation day passed three months ago.
We’re somewhere in the middle of September. The wind has gotten cooler, but in part that’s because we’re headed north. We’ve heard from others we’ve passed along the way—groups of twenty to fifty, never anywhere near as numerous as our own collective—that there’s a fortress in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia, built by communities there to wait out the winter. It sounds like a fairytale. It might be. But we have nowhere else to go. The yurts are warm-weather dwellings, and we’ll have to abandon or find a way to store the collapsible structures soon enough. Already their felt walls are inadequate for the blowing winds, and I worry about the babies in our midst, the elderly and the children who I can hear sniffling in their sleep.
Signs of the invaders are strongest in the west. The far south is an unknown variable, since the others we’ve met are all coming from Kyrgyzstan, or the Pavlodar or Akmola oblasts, or Xinjiang. They all tell us the same thing: that the aliens and their machines have taken over any city and town with anything worth scavenging, and that they’re concentrating on coastal areas. Since Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country, Alibek and I theorize that their presence is sparser here. We’ve been able to map a rough trajectory of their regular patrols, and after the initial invasion, they’ve never ventured outside of a certain swinging radius around major cities or bodies of water.
We don’t know why they’re here. But they haven’t set their sights on the immense stretch of nearly deserted land in the center of Kazakhstan, on the remote tracts of the steppe that we travel, or the fortified mountains bordering its furthest reaches. Not yet. Their takeover was total, their integration into our media and our atmosphere seamless, designed to cause as little fuss and chance to fight back as possible. They seem unconcerned with rebellion, with hunting down the dregs of the human race, and I dread the reasoning behind that cool certainty. If we’re still living, I suspect it’s because there may be too few humans left on the face of this earth for them to worry about our little roving band. If they’ve let us wander this far, it’s because we’re not even worth the trouble it would take to quash us.
Whenever we settle after a long journey, when we find our way to relative safety, we have a feast. Daughters and mothers roll out plastic dastarkhans and long cushioned mats on the rolling wooden platforms used to carry cargo, now transformed into dining patios. Sons and fathers dig pits in the dirt to build fires, hauling aluminum kazans out of the wagons to make plov and soup and beshbarmak. Tea is a must, and the grandmothers busy themselves with its preparation, digging into the stores we’ve collected on our few careful forays into roadside shops. Grandfathers light the stoves inside the yurts, and start up games of tavla while smoking their now-precious cigarettes. Children run around playing soccer and tag and oshuq, a dice game played with the anklebones of sheep and goats.
For a little while life feels like what it used to be. This kind of picnic was typical for special occasions back before the aliens came. We would have celebrated Nauryz, the spring festival, only two weeks after the aliens struck, and Alibek tells me the village square would have been filled with tables laden with food and drink. A yurt would have been erected in its center, a nod to a nomadic past lost, stolen from the people of Kazakhstan by Josef Stalin, who forced the residents of this region into collective farms, to the ruin of countless communities.
No one could have imagined that we’d use these yurts again, that we’d raid the museum in a nearby town to retrieve the plans and the parts to reconstruct them, that Ramazan, who used to work as a docent there, would need to use all of his knowledge of the ancient craft to recreate their construction. Yura, automotive genius that he is, upgraded the design, using the shells of old trucks and vans to allow the yurts to move by their own power, guided by drivers. We call all the vehicles in the fleet big enough for sleeping in “yurts” now, though we’ve got a motley collection of cars and marshrutkas, the big vans once used to transport passengers from Zhuldyz to other cities and towns. On clear nights some of us bunk outside, though the sight of the stars still makes many people uneasy.
Sometimes I sleep in Alibek’s family yurt, and sometimes under the sky. It’s uncomfortable either way: the thin mats stacked one upon the other still leave my joints vulnerable, and I awake each morning stiff with pain. The disease in my genetic code, a form of skeletal dysplasia, means my joints scrape and smash instead of fitting together like hinges. Molly has it, and my dad has it, and he believes my lost great-great-uncle Nicholas, who died out here somewhere on the steppe, probably had it too, from the few photos my dad’s family possesses that record Nicholas’s short stature and turned-in knees. When I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in college, I thought about how interminable such a day and the many days that followed must have felt for Nicholas, his body contorted into positions it couldn’t take. His body, and his bones, so much like mine.
Nicholas’s bones lie somewhere here, in the endless steppe, along with the remnants of countless other exiles, travelers, civilizations. People in the States hardly ever think of Kazakhstan, and if they do they usually know nothing of the Greek, German, and Korean diaspora here. When Stalin decided to cleanse Russia proper of “enemy nationals” and increase the labor force available to cultivate cotton in the southern USSR, he exiled scores of Soviet citizens to the gulag and collective farms. Nicholas was among their number, and he never made it back home, not to Moscow, where he’d lived his entire life, and not to Greece.
“Why are you sitting alone, Jack Achilles?” Alibek has come up beside me, his forehead shining with sweat. He’s been helping with the cooking fires, and I can smell the roasting meats now, the smoke rising from the center of the camp as the sun sets over the steppe.
Ali’s the only one here who ever uses my middle name. It’s the result of a deal my parents struck long ago: my Irish mother got to pick our first names, and my Greek comic book geek father got to pick our middle ones, which is why Molly’s middle name is “Antiope.”
Even hearing Ali say that name, that name no one but my family ever calls me, sends a pang through me so strong that I have to close my eyes. He sits down next to me, on my right side so that he can hear me better. I can smell the musk rising from his skin, can feel the warmth of his bicep against mine.
“What’s on your mind?”
I will myself to open my eyes, to look over at him and smile. “I’m just tired.”
“Jack.” Ali shakes his head. “I can tell when you are worrying. You tap your cane. Like this.” He reaches out and clicks his fingernail against the cane’s plastic grip, and then slides his hand down to squeeze my knee. He knows how my joints ache now that I’m rationing pills, and helps me rub out the knots in my complaining muscles on nights when the pain has me in tears. “You have been doing it for a week, Jack Achilles. Ever since we turned north. Something is wrong.”
Everything’s wrong. It’s been wrong since the last time I saw Molly. The last time I thought I saw Molly, anyway. Her face, flickering on the screen. Her voice, oddly even, and the screen seizing up even more than it usually did. Our call had been ten minutes, tops, even though we often talked for an hour. “Everything’s fine, Jack. Chicago is fine. The videos are fake. Don’t believe everything you see.”
Ali’s eyes haven’t left my face. “I want to help, Jack. Will you let me?”
“You can’t.” A tear slides down my cheek, and I wipe it away. “It’s not…it’s okay, Ali. I’m just working through some things.”
I can’t tell him. Not yet. If he tries to talk me out of it, I’ll listen. I already know all of the reasons this is a bad plan, this idea I’ve been turning over in my head for days, but hearing those reasons in Ali’s voice will stop me in my tracks.
“But will you tell me what’s going on? When you’re ready?”
“I’ll tell you.”
“Later.” I meet his eyes, signing the promise with my fingers.
Music drifts towards us across the plain. Whenever we gather for these meals, the songs start up. The music teachers with their dombyras play the classical folk songs, but there are pop songs, too, a mix of the sounds of the place we’ve left behind, the modern Kazakhstan that no longer exists, now that everything that’s living has returned to the steppe. It’s not only us out here. The grasslands teem with life. We see rabbits and foxes and saiga antelope, undisturbed by the trains and cars that once crossed through their habitats. The music of birds mixes with our own, and at night the dogs howl along the wolves.
Ali gets to his feet. “Okay, Jack.” He extends both of his hands to help me up. “Let’s go eat.”
Alibek and I were together when everything changed.
We’d gone for a walk through the village after we washed the dishes from dinner, rinsing them in soapy and then clear water in the plastic buckets outside the apartment. As Ali and I wandered, I could still see the last orange hints of the sun fading from the edge of the steppe, the golden glow cutting across Alibek’s cheekbones.
I had spent months trying to ignore how cute Alibek was, but it was an impossible task. With his shaggy black hair and warm brown eyes, Ali could have passed for a Kazakh pop star, even in his customary teacher’s uniform of a white button-down and practical slacks. His relatives were always hounding him about getting married, since at twenty-three he was expected to have some prospects. But he always ducked his head and blushed in response to their urging, and showed no sign of interest in the dozens of women in the village with crushes on him.
It made me wonder, but my wondering was in vain. I wasn’t out to anyone in Kazakhstan but other American volunteers, and they lived far from Zhuldyz. My Peace Corps recruiter had told me I’d need to stay in the closet for the duration of my service, and I had agreed. I’d agreed to all kinds of bargains to get here, and while it was worth it, I wished I lived in a world where I didn’t have to compromise so much of myself in order to move through it.
My phone beeped, and I pulled it out of my pocket to see a WhatsApp message from Molly. Pick up.
A second later, an unfamiliar number flashed across my screen. I answered, continuing to walk alongside Alibek. “Hey. Where are you calling from?”
“I don’t have much time.” I could barely hear Molly’s voice over the clangor on the line. “They’ll shut this call down too. Jack…they’re coming.”
I shifted the phone over to my other ear, trying to hear her better. “Who’s coming? What are you talking about?”
“The aliens. They’re real, Jack. They’re real, and they’ve been blocking the news about it. Taking the cities down one by one. But the resistance got word tonight that they’re taking everything from northern Kazakhstan to Afghanistan. They already got Russia, most of China. We think they—” A blast of noise swallowed her words. “They’re keeping the infrastructure, Jack. Trying to keep people from panicking as much as possible, so everything doesn’t get destroyed. What we don’t know is why.”
“I don’t understand.” Ali shot me a worried look. Above us, the sky had turned pitch black, night now fully fallen. “I talked to you just, like, three hours ago and everything was fine. Why—”
“It wasn’t me.”
“It wasn’t me, Jack. They’ve been monitoring our data. Building programs that can imitate and automate brief conversations. That’s how they’re generating all this news, keeping everything seeming normal. It’s not just public broadcasts. They’re in calls and emails too. They’ve got enough on us to build digital versions of us all. Don’t trust anyone you can’t talk to in person, okay? I’m calling from a protected line, but it won’t be up much longer. We’re going underground. Get away from the cities, Jack.” She paused. “I love you. I’m sorry. I have to go.”
“Molly,” I said, my mouth dry, but the line was dead. I looked at Alibek, whose eyes were wide and fixed on the sky above us.
“Look up.” He stepped closer, taking my hand. “Jack… look up.”
I did, and saw nothing but blackness. “What are you—” My breath hitched as I worked out what he meant. Blackness. No stars; no clouds. A solid ceiling of black, from here to the horizon, over the whole of the desert steppe.
I shivered, searching for the moon, for signs of a distant star, but the blackness hung impenetrable. Then, slowly, with fine lines of dark gray running through it, the blackness began to crack.
I strained my eyes. Alibek’s fingers dug into my palm. Shapes started to detach themselves from the mass, their surfaces glinting under the moonlight as they parted to let it through. The star-veined blackness shifted, split, and suffused the welkin, until I could see exactly what it was made of—
“Ships. Oh, god, Ali—they’re ships.”
A thousand thick, blanketing the endless sky. I turned to Alibek, grasping his forearms. “Inside. We have to get inside.”
Where? They were above us, and any place below was as unsafe as another. “The high school. It’s close, and people will be gathering. Text everyone and tell them to meet us there. We’ll figure out what to do.”
Ali and I rushed through the village, as quickly as we were able, over the rocks and dirt in the dark, his arm steadying me. We passed a long stretch of small houses, and I could see the crowds beginning to emerge from their doorways, the word spreading of the strangeness above. A few young people were beginning to run, to break away from the buildings and head to the school at the center of the village, but in their wake they left the rest of us: the older people, the children, the ones who, for whatever reason, couldn’t get themselves to safety as swiftly. I grabbed Ali’s arm, slowing him. “I have to help them.”
He looked towards the apartment nearest to us, where an old woman was sitting, her eyes on the sky, worry beads in her hand. “I’ll help you too.”
“Your mom will worry, Ali.”
“I’ll tell her I’m okay. That we are both okay. She’ll understand.”
We joined up with a group of people who were already working out how to secure everyone rides over to the high school. A couple of cab drivers offered up seats in their cars, and a neighbor with a donkey cart was able to take a few others. I helped quickly rig up a reinforced rope lead to turn one of the wheeled pallets vendors took to the bazaar into a form of transport, and finally made my way alongside the motley collection of vehicles to the high school gymnasium with Alibek. We arrived to find most of the village inside, and searched the crowd for Alibek’s mother, who embraced us both when we found her.
We waited: in terror, we waited. The boys from the soccer fields, the girls from the English club, the old men who sat smoking near the magazine, the woman who worked there, her headscarf glittering in the darkness, its edges etched with shining white stones.
I kept dialing Molly, but there was no reply. After a while, I stopped, to try to save some of my cell battery. Around me people were checking the news using radios and phones, but there was nothing. Not a word of what had come from the sky. Tuning into these broadcasts, any viewer would have thought that everything was normal. They would never have known what had come to Earth.
We found out about the gas later.
Ali was the one who convinced the village to head out into the steppe. Not everyone wanted to go, but I told them what Molly had said about getting as far from the cities as we could. Zhuldyz certainly didn’t qualify as a city—the biggest city nearby was Shymkent, four hours away—but if the invaders were scanning for signs of infrastructure, they could wind up here eventually. Every second we stayed in Zhuldyz made us a target.
In the end almost everyone joined us. I don’t know what became of those who stayed behind.
If the gas hit them—if those huge, floating clouds enveloped them—their bodies crumbled into dust. We’ve seen it happen from afar, from the footage Aliya’s eagles brought back to us. That’s the only way we’ve witnessed the invaders’ work. We’ve never glimpsed the aliens themselves, but only their ships and vehicles, those black armored spheres that plunge from the sky and unfold into crab-like machines, made for mining or building or killing, resurfacing towns and extracting resources.
They could drop a bomb on us at any time. Though we stay off the grid, though we camouflage the yurts as best we can, if they wanted to they could locate and exterminate us easily with their unfathomable technology. That they haven’t only speaks to the fact that we aren’t a priority. We’re pests, nothing more. But I don’t doubt that they’ll deal with us eventually.
If we get to this base in Mongolia—if we go underground for the winter—that’s months more I’ve lost. Months where parts of the steppe may be impassable. If I’m going to get back to Molly and my parents—if I’m to have any hope of reaching the States—I have to go now. Take the route through the Polygon, where the aliens are avoiding the radioactive traces left by the testing of nuclear weapons there in the Soviet era, from what Aliya’s eagles have seen. Head through the desolate heart of the steppe, south of Karaganda, north of Kyzylorda, where few villages and even fewer cities lie. On my own, because I can’t ask anyone else to risk their lives. Too many have already died. Our entire neighboring village. Friends and family who were in Tashkent and Almaty and Astana the day the ships touched down.
“Is now later, Jack?” Alibek’s voice is soft in my ear. He’s lying beside me. We’ve chosen to sleep out under the stars tonight, on the edge of the camp, listening to the wind rustling through the grass. All the way from here to the Caspian Sea, where a man from Atyrau we met on the road claims there are secret submarines ferrying passengers to Azerbaijan. If I can get there, I’ll see. I don’t have a choice. I can’t abandon Molly, not if there’s any chance she and my parents are alive.
I turn on my side, making sure he can see my lips in the faint light from the nearby fire. “I’m going to do something really ill-advised, Ali.”
His eyes are dark in the flickering glow. “I know.”
“What do you mean, you know?”
He reaches out. Puts his hand on mine, where it lies on the mat between us. “I would go too, Jack. If it were my family. If it were Aliya—I would go too.”
I stare at him a moment, and then take his other hand. “Come with me,” I whisper. I don’t want to say it. I hate that I’m saying it. But my hands are curled around Alibek’s, and I can’t seem to let go.
He shakes his head. “I can’t go, Jack. I have to stay with them. They’re my family. But I—” He swallows. “I do not want to lose you.”
I’m still afraid of misreading signals. We’ve been using a multi-dimensional language, Alibek and I. Struggling to find the right signifier, across symbols and sounds and tongues and touch, to express precisely what we mean. But then Ali releases my hand, pressing his fingertips to my cheek, and brings his lips to mine.
I depart at noon the next day.
Alibek helps me pack up one of the smaller wagons, one set on a motorized tricycle. We’ve planned to tell anyone who asks that we’re heading to a bus station we passed along the road for supplies, but no one interferes.
When I’m ready, Ali travels with me until we’re out of sight of the camp, sitting beside me as I navigate the wagon over bumpy terrain. I don’t say goodbye to anyone else, even though it hurts to leave this way. I know they’ll try to stop me. I know they’d be right to do so. But I have to do this, either way.
I plan to find shelter where I can along the road. I’ve got medical supplies, though my crucial stash of pills keeps getting smaller, and food, and as much water as I can carry. I’ve got the iPad, if I can find Wi-Fi again to use it, and an atlas, and a compass. The way is easy enough for the first leg of this journey, though. I only need to follow the sunset.
Ali embraces me for a long time before letting me go. “Come back,” he says into my ear. “If you can, come back. Or maybe I will find you. Maybe we’ll find each other again.”
I nod, holding him tight. I know we never will. I drive away, leaving him to walk back to the camp, and try not to look back. I almost make it. I glance behind me once, and nearly turn the wagon around at the sight of Alibek there, receding into the steppe, standing motionless as I get further and further away.
But I don’t. I press my foot to the pedal, already feeling the little aches it sends up through my ankles and knees, leaving Alibek and Zhuldyz and Nicholas Eliades behind.
I’m no threat to the aliens, but I know there’s little chance that I’ll survive this journey. I try not to think of that, though. As I travel on, I think only of where I’m going. As the day darkens, I keep my eyes on the steppe, watching for invaders. On the steppe below, and the stars above.
© 2018 by Katharine Duckett