We Could Be Heroes

a crowd of people looking at a strange ship (READ: UFO) hovering over the capital, emitting an eerie yellow) holding cell phones with no service symbols on them

editorial illustrations by e. russo

Nobody expected the inauguration protests would be interrupted by an alien invasion.

Heather was standing outside the bank of port-a-potties in front of the National Museum of Natural History when the spacecraft first appeared as a shadow skimming across the ground. She looked up, clutching her wife Rebecca’s coat and regulation-sized clear plastic backpack stuffed with protein bars, identification, an emergency poncho, and 70 percent dark chocolate, and gaped at the giant black ship gliding silently overhead. It was definitely heading for the Capitol building.

A woman nearby wearing the fluorescent yellow knitted beanie that had become ubiquitous among the protesters shrieked, dropping her hand-drawn sign that declared YELLOW-BELLIED LIBERAL AGAINST BRAUN #NOTMYPRESIDENT. The woman’s scream was echoed by another, and then another, and soon the cries seemed to rise in unison from the crowd of protesters and Braun supporters packed together on the National Mall.

Heather backed up against the plastic wall of the port-a-potty where Rebecca was taking forever to pee, and where she had leaned their two protest signs. (GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY YELLOW BELLY and MAKE QUEER LOVE, FUCK BRAUN.) Heather did not scream. She called, “Bec? What’s taking you so long? Something’s happening.”

Rebecca’s muffled voice came through the port-a-potty vent: “What’s going on?”

“I’m… not sure. You should get out here.”

Heather watched the spaceship as it floated toward the Capitol and felt a sense of disconnection. It was obviously an alien spaceship. It looked almost exactly like the one in Independence Day, which she had stood in line to see during the summer before senior year in high school. She still thought she was straight then, and had pretended like she totally wanted to see it when Brad Steiner asked if she wanted to go. The movie had turned out to be fun; Brad had turned out to be a groper. Independence Day was now indelibly linked in her mind with the memory of his butter popcorn-scented breath on her cheek as his sweaty hand snuck beneath her T-shirt, and her belated realization that the idea of making out with him was disgusting.

The port-a-potty door banged open and Rebecca popped out in her bright yellow beanie, rubbing hand sanitizer into her hands. “What’s up? Why are people yelling?” she asked.

“Look up,” Heather said.

Rebecca looked up. She did a double-take that was almost comedic in its timing, and Heather found herself suppressing a totally inappropriate urge to laugh. She wondered if Rebecca was going to freak out. She wondered why she herself wasn’t freaking out, why she was calmly observing the protesters and the spaceship and Rebecca as if she were doing an intake meeting with a new client. Wasn’t this the kind of situation that brought out a person’s true self? And if so, did that mean Heather possessed the cool confidence of a well-trained crisis negotiator — or that she was in shock?

She recalled, suddenly, what her Japanese grandmother had told her about being carted off to an internment camp in the middle of nowhere during World War II. Obaachan had been sixteen years old when her family had been imprisoned at Heart Mountain in 1942. Heather had once asked her if she’d been afraid to get on the train that took them away from Los Angeles, their home, and Obaachan had answered, “Afraid? There was nothing we could do! We had no choice. When you have no choice, why waste time on fear? We focused on getting through it.”

Heather wished she could call Obaachan now, but she had died seven years ago. She should call her parents, though — what if they were seeing this on TV and worrying about her? Heather pulled out her cell phone, but in the upper left corner where the signal strength bars usually showed were two tiny words: NO SERVICE. She sighed. There hadn’t been any service since they arrived at the protest, probably due to the hundreds of thousands of cell phones all crammed into the same space.

Heather noticed that Rebecca had taken out her phone and was recording the spaceship. “What are you doing?” Heather asked. All around them, people were still screaming and pointing, but Rebecca’s hand was remarkably steady.

two hands holding up a cell phone, recording a video of a UFO

“Exclusive footage,” Rebecca said. “I’m here on the National Mall as this… highly unusual craft approaches the inauguration platform.”

Heather realized that Rebecca was narrating the video. Heather’s composure abruptly snapped. “You promised this would be a Beckster-free weekend!”

Beckster was the name of Rebecca’s YouTube personality, a personality that Heather both lusted after and loathed, often simultaneously, which sometimes made things interesting in the bedroom but was generally frustrating everywhere else. Beckster was kind of a bro — a lesbian bro — who could be overconfident and gratingly self-important but could also switch seamlessly into a charm offensive that could still disarm Heather in seconds despite her best efforts to resist. Beckster was not Rebecca, a distinction that Heather took care to remember when they were in public together — for example, at an alcohol-fueled women’s weekend at a beach resort in the off-season. When they had decided to go to the Braun inauguration protest, Rebecca had promised that their weekend would be just for them—no special live streams, no fan meet-ups. They came as private American citizens protesting the election of a sexist and racist president who didn’t even win the popular vote; not as a YouTube celebrity and her social worker wife.

“Rebecca,” Heather said. “There isn’t even any reception. What are you doing?”

Annoyingly, Rebecca didn’t even acknowledge her; she simply kept narrating. “All around us the crowd seems  unsure of whether the craft overhead is friendly or not. People have stopped screaming, but a lot of people are still watching the craft. The police on the street here are watching this thing too. It appears to be slowing down as it reaches the Capitol. The question is, what is this? Is it some kind of special effect? You know Hollywood’s pretty advanced these days. Or is it some kind of ploy by the arguably illegitimate Braun administration to intimidate us into submission?”

Scowling, Heather glanced around. The bank of port-a-potties where they were standing wasn’t far from the center of the mall, but it had taken them the better part of an hour to break free from the crowd to get there. The crowd was currently all turned toward the spacecraft, yellow-hatted protesters and flag-waving Braun fans alike. For the first time in what seemed like years (actually, it had been 16 months since Braun, a former child actor, first announced his candidacy, so they were in their second year of this hell), nobody was arguing about politics. Everyone was, instead, intently focused on the mystery that had popped into being overhead like a mass hallucination.

Heather was pretty sure mass hallucinations didn’t happen, though. And if they did, this one was quite spectacular, because now hundreds of wispy things — like balls with fluttering streamers attached — were dropping out of the spacecraft. It looked like very weird, floaty hail. Heather’s irritation at Rebecca’s Beckstering was punctured by an electric thrill — the way she felt when a science fiction movie revealed the face of its monster for the first time.

“What are these things falling from the spaceship?” Rebecca was saying as she recorded. “It looks like falling sperm.”

Heather’s thrill turned instantly to dismay.

Rebecca continued, “What if this is a Russian ship? What if Russia — we all know they’re rumored to have been manipulating Braun’s campaign — what if Russia is behind this thing in the sky? What if those are chemical weapons dropping?”

Heather gave her wife the side-eye, but Rebecca didn’t notice. The Beckster didn’t really do politics; this was a departure for her. It was as if Rebecca was trying to be the Beckster channeling Rachel Maddow, but she ended up sounding like a conspiracy theorist.

The crowd beneath the spaceship had begun to break up. People were running now — running toward Heather and Rebecca.

The port-a-potties were surrounded by low metal barricades, which had forced people into relatively orderly lines while they waited to pee, but also created a false sense of safety. Heather was pretty sure those metal barricades wouldn’t hold up against the crowd. They were about to be trampled.

“Rebecca,” Heather said again, this time more loudly. She grabbed her wife’s arm, jostling the phone.

“Hey,” Rebecca objected, and shot her an indignant look.

“Stop it with the goddamn Beckstering! We have to leave. Look!” She pushed down the phone, forcing Rebecca to look at the crowd with her own eyes rather than through the screen.

Rebecca muttered, “Shit.”

two girls running with protest signs, scared expressions on their faces

Rebecca’s clear backpack bounced against her spine as she sprinted across Madison Drive toward the intersection at 7th Street, dragging Heather by one hand and trying not to drop her protest sign in the other. Heather, carrying their MAKE QUEER LOVE sign, was yelling, “They’re coming!”

Rebecca glanced over her shoulder at the crowd that was surging toward them in a wave of protest signs, yellow hats, and American flags accompanied by intermittent shrieks. The police, who had kept a low profile during the protests, were ineffectively yelling at people not to run. Rebecca decided not to look back again, because the sight was extremely disturbing and made her feel like she was running from a zombie horde. That thought, though, was sort of entertaining, and her mouth perked up in a brief smile.

“We have to get back to the hotel,” Rebecca said.

“It’s three miles from here!”

“Let’s just get off the mall first.”

The zombie horde behind them was gaining. Rebecca could hear them — the stampede of footsteps, the terror in their voices — but a part of her could not accept that this was happening. She desperately wanted to whip out her phone and interview some of the spooked protesters, but Heather would not allow that. Rebecca was convinced this had to be some kind of virtuoso mass illusion. Maybe David Copperfield had done it; hadn’t he made the Statue of Liberty disappear?

“Is David Copperfield still alive?” Rebecca shouted at Heather.

Heather somehow managed to roll her eyes while running. “Are you serious?”

They continued to run through the intersection of Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue, but as they passed the colonnaded National Archives building, their speed began to flag. By the time they hit Pennsylvania Avenue, Rebecca had slowed to a breathless jog. Heather, miraculously, was now dragging her forward.

“Wait, I just — I just need — a minute,” Rebecca panted. As the streets had widened, the zombie horde had loosened up, scattering across the pavement in a less menacing manner. They were surrounded once again by protest signs and yellow beanies, but people seemed less afraid and more bewildered. A whole contingent of men dressed in SWAT uniforms carrying assault rifles ran in formation back toward the spaceship, which had stopped moving. Rebecca couldn’t tell if those weird sperm balls had stopped dropping, though.

“Is it over the Capitol?” Heather asked.

“Maybe?” Rebecca said. They couldn’t see the Capitol building from here. “This is a really good illusion.”

“You think it’s an illusion?” Heather said incredulously.

“What do you think it is?”

Heather stared at her. “What do I think? What do you think I think?”

Rebecca shook her head. “It’s not aliens.”

Nearby, a skinny guy in a yellow beanie carrying a sign that said BRAINS NOT BRAUN swiveled his head to give them a funny look.

Heather’s eyes narrowed at Rebecca. “Okay, whatever. Let’s go back to the hotel and turn on the news.”

“It’s totally aliens,” said the skinny guy.

Rebecca reached for her phone. He’d be a good person to interview. But Heather stopped her, clamping her hand down on Rebecca’s wrist. “Ow,” Rebecca objected.

“Hotel,” Heather snarled.

“Fine, jeez.”

The walk back to the hotel took forever. It wasn’t because the crowds made it difficult — everyone had spread out, so once they left the inauguration area it wasn’t even that crowded — it was because their phones still didn’t have reception, and Rebecca and Heather kept arguing about the correct directions. Rebecca paused every so often to glance back at the giant black ship in the sky, and about the third time she looked at it, she realized the sight of it was comforting her. She wasn’t imagining it. It was still hanging there in midair like a prop from Independence Day. (She hadn’t liked the movie that much, but she’d liked Mary McDonnell in it, though she was obviously better in Battlestar Galactica.)

She began to wonder what would happen to that thing in the sky. If it was an illusion (and it had to be), would it simply vanish? If it wasn’t an illusion (which was unlikely), didn’t it have to land at some point? If so, where? She kind of wanted to go back so she could watch whatever was going to happen. This (whatever it was) would probably never occur again.

“Be careful,” Heather said, jerking her aside as they passed a Starbucks.

Broken glass crunched beneath Rebecca’s feet. Several people in black balaclavas were grimly assaulting the front window of the Starbucks. Protesters were hurrying past, eyes downcast, the way people always acted as if they couldn’t see the homeless asking for spare change.

“What do they have against Starbucks?” Rebecca asked, startled.

“Capitalism,” Heather said. “Come on, the hotel’s this way.”

Rebecca let Heather pull her along for another few feet, but then she halted. “No. I think we should go back.” Rebecca couldn’t see the black ship anymore; it was hidden behind several buildings. Its absence made her feel uneasy, as if the real world were being erased.

Heather was clearly not into it. “Are you serious? Why?”

“Because… whatever that is, it’s a once in a lifetime situation. I don’t want to look back on this and regret not being there.”

Rebecca felt a momentum building inside her, like the way she used to psych herself up to do the Splash Inferno waterslide at Splash Wonderland Waterpark when she was in middle school. All the way up the stairs she’d tell herself don’t be a chicken, don’t be a chicken. She wouldn’t look over the railings until she was at the top of the platform, hearing the shrieks of each kid as they jumped into the slide, and then she would stare down four stories at the pool down below and think: you can do it. When her turn came, she threw herself into the tube immediately in a show of bravado. In reality, she was terrified of the slide: the unstoppable momentum, the claustrophobic tube, the shocking sensation of being expelled at the bottom — pop! — straight into the deep end of the giant pool. Once she clawed herself breathlessly to the surface, she would pull herself triumphantly out of the pool, exhilaration running in a current all the way through her body.

Since then, she had chased that exhilaration in other ways. She had tried downhill skiing because it combined speed with momentum like the waterslide, but she hated the winter. She had tried surfing and enjoyed it, but didn’t live close enough to a good surfing location. And then she had discovered that public performance did the same number on her: it made her sweat with nerves, but it also switched her on like a light bulb.

Heather had been the Splash Inferno of her love life. Rebecca had never found it difficult to ask girls out, but Heather had been different. They had met at a mutual friend’s house party, and Heather had seemed supremely competent and organized — like an adult. She made Rebecca incredibly nervous, and that made Rebecca yearn to impress her. Even now, with Heather looking at her like she was crazy for wanting to go back to the spaceship, she wanted to impress her.

“I don’t think it’s safe,” Heather said. Behind her, one of the black-clad anti-capitalists swung a hammer at the last remaining bits of glass in the Starbucks front window.

Rebecca wondered what had happened to all the cops; there were none in the area. “Maybe not, but I can’t just go back to the hotel and watch it on the news. We’re so close!” She stabbed a finger in the direction of the invisible ship. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Heather’s eyes bulged. “The worst?”

Rebecca grinned. “Come on, it’s totally an illusion. Let’s go see the climax!”

protest sign being lowered to the ground, it says "make queer love, fuck braun" and there is broken glass on the floor

“You don’t know what it is! And all those freaking military guys went that way—people are going to get hurt. That’s what happens when a bunch of commandos show up at an alien spaceship.”

“Somebody has to be there to get it on video,” Rebecca countered. “To fight the power.”

Heather raised her eyebrows. “Seriously?”

Rebecca winced. “Sorry, should I not have said that?”

Heather sighed. Her MAKE QUEER LOVE sign sank down to the ground at her feet.

Rebecca grabbed Heather’s free hand. “Come on, it’s history. Don’t you want to be part of history?”

“History isn’t real nice to people like me. Or you, for that matter.”

Rebecca pulled her closer, so they were face to face, an island of two in the middle of the moving crowd. “Does that mean we should stop trying to change things? We can do this. I want to shoot some more video so I can report on what’s happening. Help me.”

Heather looked like she was suppressing a smile. “You’re a reporter now? Don’t you think they already have those back there?”

Rebecca knew she could convince her to give in. “What if our footage turns out to be the only true record of this?” She leaned in. “Once in a lifetime. You want to do this with me?”

a glass orb on the ground, two pairs of feet standing around it. a yellow converse kicks at the orb. there's an eerie yellow smoke surrounding the scene.

They left their protest signs leaning against a building next to several others that had also been abandoned. One of them was a color illustration of Princess Leia circa Episode IV with a caption declaring: JOIN THE RESISTANCE.

“See? Princess Leia thinks we should go back,” Rebecca joked.

Heather groaned. She still didn’t think that they had made the smart choice, but there was no stopping Rebecca when the Beckster took over. She strode forward purposely, her phone held in front of her like a useless shield, recording every step.

Heather couldn’t decide if she found Rebecca’s desire to run toward the potential disaster inspiring or annoying. On the one hand, if aliens truly had arrived and were going to destroy the human race, maybe it was better to get destroyed right away than to flee and risk living through civilization becoming a dystopian wasteland in which they spent all their time hiding from the invaders and eating a dwindling supply of canned beans. On the other hand, living seemed a lot better than dying.

Heather pulled out her phone to try to call her parents again, but there was still no reception. She began to compose a brief message on her Notes app in case she died, and someone found her with her phone. Dear Mom and Dad, I love you.

That was as far as she got, because Rebecca halted so suddenly that Heather banged right into her and dropped her phone.

“What the hell!” Heather cried. She bent to grab her phone and was relieved to see that the industrial strength case she’d paid way too much for had protected the screen. Her unfinished message to her parents still showed.

“Look down there,” Rebecca said, pointing down a narrow alley between two buildings.

Something was on the ground at the end of the alley, emitting a faint glowing smoke.

“It looks like one of those things that fell from the ship,” Rebecca said.

“It looks like a bomb,” Heather said.

Rebecca either didn’t hear or didn’t care, because she headed directly into the alley.

“What are you doing?” Heather asked. “Stop!”

Rebecca waved her off. “It’s fine, I can feel it!”

“You can feel your death coming?”

“If it was going to kill us it already would have.”

“That’s what they say in movies right before the villain kills you.”

Rebecca didn’t respond. She was still approaching the thing on the ground. Cursing, Heather followed her wife into the alley.

She stopped several feet away while Rebecca circled the object, recording it the whole time. The thing was indeed a glowing orb, pearlescent, about the size of a soccer ball. A glimmering grayish-white mist rose from a tiny hole in the top.

“It looks like a space-age humidifier,” Rebecca observed.

“Why would aliens drop humidifiers on us?”

“It’s not aliens.”

“Well it’s definitely not a humidifier.”

Rebecca looked at her sharply. “Heather. Stop being a wet blanket. Look at this thing. It’s incredible!”

“It could be an alien egg that’s about to split open and eat us,” Heather said flatly. “But sure, go ahead and — wait — what are you — don’t touch it! Oh my god, you kicked it? It’s not a soccer ball.”

The orb barely moved.

“Ow,” Rebecca said in surprise. “That thing is heavy.”

The imprint of her sneaker toe had left what looked like a bruise on the side of the ball. The bruise seemed to ripple, and Heather froze, certain that the ball was about to explode and destroy them—but the ripple subsided, and the surface of the ball returned to the same pristine, glowing state it had been in before Rebecca kicked it.

Against her better instincts, Heather approached the ball. There definitely was something alien about it. She bent over and studied the luminous surface. It looked soft, almost gel-like. “Someone needs to examine this thing,” she said. “An expert.”

“Who’s an expert in weird glow balls?” Rebecca asked. “Hey, what about that chick you dated who works for NASA?”

Heather straightened up in surprise. “Kristy? She doesn’t work for NASA. She works for the Defense Department now.”

Rebecca visibly restrained herself from rolling her eyes. “Whatever. Yeah, Dr. Kristy. Doesn’t she live around here?” Rebecca always referred to her sarcastically as Dr. Kristy, even though Kristy had a Ph.D. in physics and would never refer to herself that way.

“She lives in Alexandria, Virginia. Wait — how do you know that?” Heather asked. Rebecca had always had a strong dislike — well, jealousy was the more accurate term — for Kristy. Kristy had been Heather’s first girlfriend, way back in college, but their romance had long since fizzled out. Kristy was too much like Heather for their relationship to last. Heather needed some push and pull from her partner, not someone else who also enjoyed compiling long lists of pros and cons before making any decisions. Even when they were breaking up, Kristy had made a list. Heather still remembered that on the con side was “lack of spontaneity.”

“She liked your post about going to the march on Facebook yesterday night,” Rebecca said. “How come you didn’t want to meet up with her today?”

“Uh, because you hate her?” she said, attempting to sound casual.

“I don’t hate her,” Rebecca said unconvincingly. “Anyway, this is an emergency. We should take this—” Rebecca gestured to the glowing ball. “Whatever this is to her.”

Secretly, Heather thought that taking the alien ball to Kristy wasn’t a bad idea, but it would undoubtedly trigger Rebecca’s unresolved jealousy issues, and Heather didn’t think that dealing with that during an alien invasion was a good idea. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Heather said.

“Why not?”

“Kristy probably wouldn’t even know what to do. Her specialty is interstellar geology or something like that. She’s not a technological genius.”

“You’ve always talked about her like she’s a genius,” Rebecca said resentfully.

Heather was surprised. “Is that why you hate her?”

Rebecca flushed slightly. “What does it matter if I hate her? This might be the end of the world. I’m not going to let my possible hatred of your ex-girlfriend prevent us from saving it.”

Heather looked at her wife in wonder. “You’ve never admitted that before. Are you really admitting it?”

Rebecca’s pink face was turning red. “Admitting what? My burning jealousy of Dr. Kristy?”

Heather wasn’t sure if she’d ever seen Rebecca look so embarrassed before, and felt a burst of affection for her wife. “Aw, Bec. Kristy was totally wrong for me. You don’t have to worry.”

Rebecca began to pace around the glowing ball, avoiding Heather’s eyes. “Let’s just take the sperm ball to Dr. Kristy.”

Heather swallowed a smile. “How are we going to get it there?” she asked, although she was already mentally determining the necessary steps. They’d have to remove it from the alley; carry it back to their hotel; rent a car or borrow one; and then drive through potentially horrible traffic to Kristy’s apartment, which Heather had never been to and didn’t know how to find. If their phones still didn’t work, they’d need a map. Like a real, physical map.

“Let’s just deal with it one step at a time,” Rebecca said. “Here, we’ll just put it in my backpack.” She took off the clear plastic backpack and set it on the ground. She handed her phone to Heather; it was still recording. Heather pressed stop immediately, realizing it must have recorded the entire argument about Kristy. That could not go on the internet.

Rebecca began to remove the items from her backpack, stuffing the chocolate and power bars into her pockets. She gave the emergency poncho and water to Heather, who juggled the items along with Rebecca’s phone before she managed to tuck the phone into her jeans. “My pockets aren’t big enough for the water bottle,” Heather said.

“Just put it on the ground. We don’t need that stuff anymore.” Rebecca knelt on the pavement to examine the glowing ball.

“Wait!” Heather said as Rebecca reached for it.

Rebecca paused, hands outstretched. “Why?” The glowing light seemed to bend toward Rebecca’s palms.

“Maybe you shouldn’t touch it.” Heather kneeled beside Rebecca and ripped open the emergency poncho package. “Let’s wrap it in this. It’ll also hide it, because otherwise you can see it through the plastic backpack.”

Rebecca considered this, and nodded. “Okay.”

Heather shook out the neon orange poncho and tossed it over the ball. Its light was extinguished, and the alley suddenly seemed colder. Before she could overthink it, Heather rolled the ball into the poncho, blanketing it like a baby. The surface of the ball was squishy beneath the plastic poncho, reminding her of those weighted medicine balls at the pi-yo class she’d taken once when she was trying to get in shape for Rebecca’s YouTube show. Her arms had ached for days after that class.

Rebecca was holding her transparent backpack open, ready to receive it. The ball was heavy, but when Heather started to pick it up, it felt as if it were levitating. It was a distinctly unnerving sensation, as if the ball were alive. Heather stopped moving. The ball rested in her hands in mid-air gently, like a balloon filled with sand, and through the plastic of the orange poncho the ball began to glow again.

“What’s wrong?” Rebecca asked. “Is it doing something to you?”

The question made Heather want to laugh. The ball wasn’t doing anything, but she felt as if it were communicating with her. “It’s like it’s saying take me to your leader,” Heather said, and then she did laugh. It sounded ridiculous.

“It’s saying that to you? Like in your head?” Rebecca sounded worried.

“Maybe?” Heather knew that she should be freaked out, but she felt oddly relaxed. If they were the main characters in a science fiction novel, she and Rebecca would be on the verge of becoming the heroes. Could she be the hero of a novel? The idea seemed both ludicrous and completely plausible, thus strongly indicating that Heather was losing her mind.

“Put it in the backpack, Heather,” Rebecca said firmly. She snapped the backpack open right beneath the ball.

The ball squirmed in Heather’s hands, and a plume of mist wriggled into the air through a crack in the poncho folds. Startled, Heather dropped the ball into the plastic backpack. Rebecca caught it, zipped the backpack closed, and set it on the ground.

“That was bizarre,” Heather said.

“Did it really tell you to take it to your leader?”

“I think so. Well, not in English. More like… I knew that’s what it wanted me to do.” Heather caught Rebecca’s skeptical eye. “Do I sound crazy?”

Rebecca gave her a look that said what do you think?

“Do you think we’re supposed to do that?” Heather asked. “Take it to our leader? That’s what they always say in movies — the aliens, I mean.”

Rebecca shook her head definitively. “First of all, it’s not aliens. Second, if it did say that to you in your head, which I highly doubt, who would be our leader?”

Heather raised her eyebrows suggestively. “You mean the winner of the popular vote?”

Rebecca blinked. “Heather, can you imagine how the media would freak out if we took it to — where the hell would we take it? We don’t even know where she is.”

“The woods. I know someone who knows where she lives, in general terms.”

“No. This is not some fantasy in which we bring an alien communication device to our fallen leader—”

“She was betrayed by the electoral college.”

“—and then aliens come and save us from the asshole who somehow got himself into the White House.” Rebecca took a deep breath. “This is reality. We are taking this to an expert. Like you said.”

“To Dr. Kristy.”

Rebecca smiled wryly. “Yeah, your super smart ex will know what to do with it.” Rebecca looked a bit disheveled, her floppy ash blonde hair flopping in the wrong direction, an adorably vulnerable look on her face.

“Or,” Heather said, “we could keep it. I mean, if we were in a movie, we could take it home and become its interpreter, you know? What if it’s an alien communication device and it can only communicate with me?” She suddenly imagined herself at the UN, standing with the glowing sperm ball in front of that bronze map of the world, speaking for the aliens.

Before she could imagine what she was wearing, Rebecca said, “But we’re not in a movie.”

“You don’t think we could be heroes?”

“I’m a minor internet celebrity and you’re a social worker.”

Heather found it unexpectedly endearing that Rebecca referred to herself as a minor internet celebrity. “Aw, come on. Don’t you want to be a hero?”

“No,” Rebecca said emphatically. “Heroes end up spending the entire story fleeing from the villain, hiding out, getting shot at, and possibly invaded by an alien host that chews its way out of your chest.”

“You’re combining a lot of movies into one.”

Rebecca stood up, putting the backpack on. She held out her hand to Heather. “We’ll take it to Dr. Kristy and then go home.”

Heather let Rebecca haul her to her feet. They walked out of the alley together.

“You know,” Heather said, “I was an English major. The hero never wants to be the hero.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you’re going to save the world, Bec!”

“No I’m not.”

“Yes you are!”

“No, I’m not.”

They walked companionably down the street, heading back toward the vandalized Starbucks and their hotel, where, Heather had remembered, maps were available at the front desk.

the orb, wrapped in a poncho, emitting a strange smoke

Malinda Lo is the author of several young adult novels, including most recently A Line in the Dark. Her novel Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, the Andre Norton Award for YA Science Fiction and Fantasy, the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and was a Kirkus Best Book for Children and Teens. She has been a three-time finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Malinda’s nonfiction has been published by The New York Times Book Review, NPR, The Huffington Post, The Toast, The Horn Book, and AfterEllen. Her website is www.malindalo.com.

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