When the seeds rained down from deep space, it may have been the first stage of an alien invasion—or something else entirely. How much time do we have left, and do we even understand what timescale to use? As a slow apocalypse blooms across the Earth, planets and plants, animals and microbes, all live and die and evolve at different scales. Is one human life long enough to unravel the mystery?
On the first night of the meteor storm, his mother came to wake him up, but LT was only pretending to sleep. He’d been lying in the dark waiting for the end of the world.
You have to see this, she said. He didn’t want to leave the bed but she was an intense woman who could beam energy into him with a look. She took his hand and led him between the stacks of moving boxes, then across the backyard and through the cattle gate to the field, where the view was unimpeded by trees. Meteors, dozens of meteors, scored the sky. She spread a blanket across the tall grass, and they sat back on their elbows.
LT was ten years old, and he’d only seen one falling star in his life. Not even his mother had seen this many at once, she said. Dozens visible at one time, zooming in from the east, striking the atmosphere like matches, white and orange and butane blue. The show went on, hundreds a minute for ten minutes, then twenty. He could hear his father working in the woodshop back by the garage, pushing wood through a whining band saw. Mom made no move to go get him, didn’t call for him.
LT asked for the popsicles they’d made yesterday and Mom said something like what the hell. He ran to the freezer, lifted out the aluminum ice tray. The metal sucked at his fingertips. He jiggled the lever and freed one of the cubes, grape Kool-Aid on a toothpick, so good. That memory, even decades later, was as clear as the image of the meteors.
He decided to bring the whole tray with him. He paused outside the woodshop, finally pushed open the door. His father leaned over his bench, marking a plank with a pencil. He worked all day at the lumberyard and came home to work with scraps and spares. Always building something for the house, for her, even after it was too late to change her mind.
“Did you see the sky?” LT asked him. “It’s like fireworks.”
LT didn’t have his mother’s gift for commanding attention. But his father followed him to the field, put his hands on his hips, tilted his head back. Wouldn’t sit on the blanket.
“Meteorites,” his father said, and Mom said without looking back, “Meteoroid, in the void.”
“Meteoroid in the void. Meteorite, rock hound’s delight. Meteor, neither nor.”
LT repeated this to himself. Neither nor. Neither nor.
“Still looks like Revelations,” Dad said.
“No,” his mother said. “It’s beautiful.”
The storm continued. LT didn’t remember falling asleep on the blanket, but he remembered jerking awake to a sound. Then it came again, a crack like a shot from a .22. Seconds later another clap, louder. He didn’t understand what was happening.
The sky had reversed: It was more white than black, pulsing with white fireballs. Not long streaks anymore, chasing west. No, the meteors were coming down at them, down upon their heads.
A meteor struck a nearby hill. A wink of light. LT thought, Now it’s a meteorite.
His father yanked him onto his feet. “Get inside.”
Then a flash, and the air shook. The sound was so loud, so close. He couldn’t see. His mother said, “Oh my!” as if it were nothing more surprising than a deer jumping across the road.
His father yelled, “Run to the fireplace!”
LT blinked spots from his vision. His father pushed him in the small of the back and he ran.
His father had built the fireplace himself, stacking the river rock, mortaring it with hand-stirred buckets of cement. It was six feet wide at the mouth, and the exposed chimney ran up the east wall, to the high timbered ceiling twenty-five feet above. Later, LT wondered if rock and mortar could have withstood a direct hit, but at that moment he had no doubt it would protect him.
The explosions seemed random; far away, then suddenly near, a boom that vibrated through the floorboards. It went on, an inundation, a barrage. His mother exclaimed with every report. His father moved from window to window, frowning and silent. LT wished he wouldn’t stand next to the glass.
Eventually, most of the strikes seem to be happening over the line of foothills, rolling west like a thunderstorm. His father insisted that no one sleep away from the lee of the chimney, so his mother assembled a bed for LT out of moving boxes, turning the emergency into a slumber party, an adventure. His father dragged furniture close: the couch for Mom and the recliner for him.
When his mother kissed him goodnight (the second time that night), he whispered, “Will you be here in the morning?”
“I’ll wake you,” she said. LT could feel his father watching them.
It was the last time they would all sleep in the same room, or the same house.
He opened his eyes, and for a long moment he couldn’t figure out why he was on the floor, in the living room. He stared stupidly at the empty bookshelves. His mother’s bookshelves.
Panic hit, and he sat up. He called, “Mom?”
Then he took in the piles of moving boxes still in the room, and began to calm down. He hadn’t missed her.
In the kitchen his father hunched over the table, staring at the portable black-and-white TV. Two cupboard doors showed empty shelves. The hooks above the stove seemed to gesture for their missing pots.
His father put an arm across LT’s shoulders without looking away from the TV.
The news was full of pictures of damaged buildings and forest fires. It was no ordinary meteor storm, and it wasn’t over. The onslaught had continued through the night and into the day, moving across the globe. The world spun eastward, and the meteors drummed into the atmosphere steady as a playing card against bicycle spokes. No one knew when it would end. The newsman called the storm “biblical,” the first time LT had heard that word outside of church, and warned about radioactivity. He knew that word from comic books.
His father turned toward the window, pushed aside the drapes. A truck had pulled off the two-lane into their gravel drive. “Go tell your mother,” he said.
LT didn’t move. His stomach felt like ice.
“Go. She’s in the backyard.”
LT walked out into a sky tinged with orange. If there were meteors up there he couldn’t see them. The air smelled like smoke.
He called for his mother. Checked the garage, where a pyramid of moving boxes filled the space, all sealed and labeled. Then he realized where she must be, and walked toward the cattle gate.
She stood at the far end of the field. He called again. She turned, beaming, something cupped in her hands. She strode toward him in her ruby cowboy boots, her yellow dress swishing high on her thighs. Then he realized what she carried.
She laughed. “It’s okay, my darlin’. It’s cooled off.”
She held it out to him. A black egg, flecked with silver, etched with spirals.
The meteor storm would go on for five more days and nights. Soon everyone would know the objects weren’t like other meteors. They weren’t chunks of stony iron ripped from a comet’s tail, or fragments of asteroids. They were capsules of woven metal, layered like an onion skin. They’d been bigger when in the void, but their outer shells had ignited and shredded in the atmosphere. The innermost shells remained intact until they slammed into the Earth. Almost all of them cracked on impact. People dug them up, showed them to television crews. Space seeds, they called them. And then the police started going house by house, confiscating them.
But not yet. At this moment, his mother was offering it to him. “Feel it,” she said. “It’s a miracle.”
He couldn’t deny her. The shell was surprisingly light. A jagged seam had opened along its top. Inside was darkness.
She said, “What do you think was in there?”
When he was eleven years old, late in the first summer he’d spend in his mother’s tiny Chicago apartment, she smuggled home one of the fern men. It was four inches tall, planted in a paper coffee cup. Its torso was a segmented tube, like bamboo, glossy as jade. Its two arm-like stems ended in tiny round leaves, and its head was a mantis-green bulb like an unopened tulip.
“Isn’t it illegal?” he asked her. But he knew the answer, and knew his mother. Her reckless instincts worried his young Puritan heart. He’d spent the school year alone in Tennessee with his father and had adopted his military rectitude.
“It’ll be our little secret,” she said.
Ours and the boyfriend’s, LT thought.
“You are crazy, honey,” said the boyfriend. He kissed her, hard, and when they finally broke apart she laughed. LT always thought of his mother as beautiful, but he’d been offended to discover that she was beautiful to others. To men. Like this shaggy dude who wore turquoise necklaces like a TV Indian and smelled like turpentine and cigarettes and scents he couldn’t yet name.
His mother went into a back closet to find a more durable container for the fern man.
“I know what you’re thinking,” the shaggy man said.
But even LT didn’t know what he was thinking.
“We should probably burn the little fucker, right?”
LT was alarmed, then embarrassed. Of course the boyfriend was right. At school, hallway posters showed spiky, ominous plants with the message Keep an Eye Out! Any sightings of invasive species were to be reported. The weeklong meteor storm had sprayed black and silver casings across millions of square miles in a broad band that circled the planet, peppering cities and fields and forests and oceans. Soldiers of every government seized what they could find. And when anything sprouted, good citizens called the authorities.
LT looked down at the fern man.
The boyfriend laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill it. Your mom would kill me! Watch this.” He touched a finger to one of the fern’s arms. It curled away as if stung.
Mom said, “Don’t bother it, it’ll get tired and stop growing. That’s what the man told me.” She transferred the sprout to a ceramic pot with much cooing and fussing. “We can’t set him in the window,” she said. “Somebody might see.” LT picked a sunny spot on the coffee table.
“He’s so cute,” his mother said.
“That’s his survival strategy,” the boyfriend said. “So cute you won’t throw him out.”
“Just like you,” she said, and laughed.
He didn’t laugh with her. His mood could change, quick. A lot of nights Mom and the boyfriend argued after LT had gone to bed—to bed but not to sleep.
“We’re all doomed,” he said. “When the aliens come for the harvest, that’s it for Homo sapiens.”
This was the popular theory: that aliens had targeted Earth and sent their food stocks ahead of them so there’d be something to eat when they arrived. LT had spent long, hot days in the apartment listening to the boyfriend while Mom was at work, or else following him around the city on vague errands. He didn’t have a regular job. He said he was an artist—with a capital A, kid—but didn’t seem to spend any time painting or anything. He could talk at length about the known invasive species, and why there were so many different ones: the weblike filaments choking the trees in New Orleans, the flame-colored poppies erupting on Mexico City rooftops, the green fins popping up in Florida beach sand like sharks coming ashore. Every shell that struck Earth, and some that hit the surface of the water, cracked and sent millions of seeds into the air or into the oceans. Most of those seeds had not sprouted, or not yet. Of those that had, many of the vines and flowers and unclassifiable blooms soon withered and died. The ones that thrived had been attacked with poison, fire, and machetes. But—but!—there were so many possible sprouts that there was no way to find them all in the millions of acres of wilderness. Even if we managed to find and destroy ninety-nine percent of the invasives, the boyfriend had told LT once, there would be millions and millions of plants growing and reproducing around the globe.
Like the fern man. “We’re all going to die,” the boyfriend said, “because of this little green dude.”
And LT thought, How can something so beautiful, so cool, be dangerous?
“Let’s give him a name,” Mom said. “LT, you do the honors.”
“I need to think about it,” he said.
Or maybe, LT thought that night as his mother and the boyfriend whisper-yelled at each other, I should change my own name. Chicago was making him into a different person. He’d become conscious of his Tennessee accent, and had taken steps to tame his vowels. He’d eaten Greek food. He’d almost gotten used to being around so many black people. And he’d started staying up to all hours in his room, an L-shaped nook off the kitchen with a curtain for a door, reading from his mother’s collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books as the rattling fan chased sweat from his ribs. The night they got the fern man he wondered if he should ask everyone to stop calling him LT and start calling him Lawrence or Taylor or something completely of his own creation, like… Lance. Lance was the kind of guy who’d be ready when the UFOs came down.
Doors slammed, his mother sobbed loudly for a while, and then the apartment went quiet. LT waited another twenty minutes, and then got up to pee. He didn’t turn on the bathroom light. He was a night creature now, as light-sensitive as a raccoon.
The door to his mother’s bedroom was ajar. She was alone in the bed.
He went into the living room. On the wall behind the couch hung four of the boyfriend’s pictures. They were all of naked women turning into buildings, or maybe vice versa, with red-brick thighs and doorways for crotches and scaffolds holding up their torsos. One of the nudes, pale and thin and sprouting television aerials from her frizzy hair, looked too much like his mother. LT wondered if other people thought they were beautiful, or if beauty mattered in art with a capital A. The figures didn’t seem to be very convincing as women or buildings. Neither nor.
The fern man stood in the dark on the coffee table. Its bulb head drooped sleepily, and its stem arms hung at its sides. The torso leaned slightly—toward the window, LT realized.
He picked up the ceramic pot and set it on the sill, in a pool of streetlight. Slowly, the trunk began to straighten. Over the next few minutes, the head gradually lifted like a deacon finishing a prayer, and the round leaves at the ends of its arms unfurled like loosening fists. The movement was almost too incremental to detect; its posture seemed to shift only when he looked away or lost concentration.
Slow Mo, he thought. That’s what we’ll call you.
Tomorrow his mother would throw all the paintings out the front window, send them sailing into the street. LT would never see the boyfriend again. The fern man stayed.