Kylus IV, Part 1


Clarion photo Sean Lee

By Ally Keefe, Reporter

Clarion photo Sean Lee


Robert Johnson stood stiff at attention behind the captain’s chair. Captain Elkans deftly flipped switches, pressed buttons, and turned dials to keep the ship on course. The bright light of Alpha Centauri had just winked out of view when the Oort cloud began to grow in the front window. 


“Johnson, I just received a summons from base. Go update them on our position.” The Captain’s clicks and whistles were clipped, betraying her frustration with the base’s constant need for updates. 


His boots thumped on the stairs as he approached the conference room. The stand of the chair rasped as it slid across the floor in front of a large screen. A green light blinked impatiently to indicate a call request. Johnson fumbled for the button as he adjusted the height of the chair to its lowest position. The toes of his boots just brushed the floor as he sat down. Commander Vorggel’s face appeared on the screen and Johnson mentally prepared himself for the Commander’s insistent personality. 


Robert was eating breakfast when the ship’s speed changed. The Earth was getting larger outside the windows and they were slowing to match the orbit speed. It’s beauty struck him suddenly. The blue patches were vibrant, and green areas peeked out from behind the stripes and clumps of clouds. It reminded Robert of the fur of the wooly ducks that roamed the meadows near his home in the winter. He thought fondly of them for a moment. This year’s winter had passed while he was on the ship. He hadn’t realized it had been that long since he had been home on Kylus IV.  




The day the aliens arrived had already been a weird one. If someone had told Rhonda Johnson five minutes ago about an imminent alien invasion she would have shrugged and said “might as well”. And when she saw the spaceship appear in the sky over her front yard, that’s exactly what she did. Then she went back to working in her vegetable garden. Aliens wouldn’t be any help in picking the caterpillars off of her cabbages. 


Around lunchtime she came inside and pottered around the kitchen making herself a sandwich. She settled onto a flower-print couch and turned on the news. The rest of the world seemed significantly more concerned about the aliens. Apparently they had ended up in Washington DC to discuss the surrender of Earth with the President of the United States. This caused a big stink with the UN when the President actually began to negotiate with the aliens on behalf of the whole planet. 


When Rhonda turned the news back on at dinner time there was a UN meeting in progress with the aliens. The clips they showed consisted of a lot of yelling in many different languages, including a harsh clicky one that was probably what the aliens spoke. Their beaklike mouths snapped and whistled a variety of sounds that expressed their frustration clearly. Seeing the aliens try to sit properly behind the tables was amusing. They couldn’t sit down like humans could so they scrunched up their large insectile legs and rested their bodies on the chairs. All the while, their many arms were waving with agitation as they chattered in their strange language. Abruptly, Rhonda got up from the couch in search of her glasses. The lenses were rubbed aggressively against her cardigan before she put them on. And she was right about what she saw. In among the aliens, there was a human. He was difficult to spot at first because of the aliens waving arms. Every so often he would lean in to the alien next to him and say something. Without that strange beak, Rhonda wasn’t sure how he could make the right sounds, but it appeared the alien understood him. A few minutes later, he walked next to the leader and had a short conversation. And then he addressed the rest of the UN in English. After that discovery, the meeting went much smoother. The aliens would talk and the human would translate for them. 


The human’s English-speaking was strange. It didn’t sound like it was his second language, it sounded more like it was his first language, but he had stopped learning at age ten or so. The vocabulary was a bit simple, and some of the mistakes he made reminded Rhonda of her time teaching elementary school. Rather suddenly, Rhonda turned the TV off and sat on the couch in silence. She stared off into the distance for a while, and then walked slowly upstairs to her bedroom. The hinges of the small wooden box creaked a bit as the lid rose. Inside was a knitted pair of small blue socks. Nestled among them was a tiny photograph of a little boy, maybe seven years old. On the back in Rhonda’s loopy scrawl was “Robert Johnson, age 7”.




Robert had never realized that his other language would become so useful one day. He wasn’t perfect, but doing non-stop translating was helping bring back the vocabulary and grammar he had forgotten over the years. As he lay down to sleep for the night, he groaned and rubbed his temples. The translator couldn’t be done too soon. Robert found relief in being back in his roomy bunk on the ship. His crewmates complained endlessly about the cramped beds, but he was much smaller than them so he’d never had an issue. 


The next morning once they touched down, Captain Elkans sent him out to the nearest town to observe. She had called the place New York. It was very large and loud and fast, so he dreaded to think of what York was like. With yesterday’s English practice he was feeling more confident, but it was still difficult. He stopped at a small shop and purchased doughnuts and coffee for the crew with the strange paper currency. As he returned to the ship he started eating a chocolate covered doughnut. A flood of memories rushed through him as he took a bite. He saw a similar doughnut shop and a kind woman smiling at him and ruffling his hair. She reached over to wipe the chocolate off of his face from the chocolate covered doughnut in his hand. Was this his mother? He knew he had to have one on Earth somewhere. He knew that was how human reproduction worked, although he knew a father was usually required as well. 


Back at the ship, his crewmates were very excited about trying human food and drink. They enjoyed the doughnuts but had difficulty appreciating the bitter coffee. Captain Elkans spent most of that day talking with Commander Vorggel about the details of negotiations with the humans. Robert and the rest of the crew got permission to explore a forest not too far away under the guise of reporting on the flora and fauna of Earth. Robert made a few half-hearted notes and drawings of some bugs and plants he found. He didn’t recognize any of the plants, but he found similar shapes and colors in his memories and they felt familiar almost the way the plants back home were. It was distracting watching his crewmates see all of these things for the first time. They were fascinated by all of the green plants and the strange fluffy tails of the squirrels. A bird call cut through the air and the foliage rustled. The whole crew glanced around worriedly. A shrieking sound like that was uncannily similar to the hunting call of the Carnivorous Thrip. The sound repeated and drew their attention to a rather harmless-looking bird in a nearby tree. He didn’t recognize that many plants, but he found similar shapes and colors in his memories and they felt familiar almost the way the plants back home were. 


When they got back to the ship, the lighthearted mood quickly darkened. They could hear Elkans’ meeting with Vorggel from the doors in the cargo bay. Every few sentences, one of them would start shouting, and then the other would as well, and they would gradually calm down to a talking level. From their position just inside the doors the words were indistinct even when the shouting grew to a maximum. At one point Robert suspected he had heard his own name, but he was unsure. 


The crew made their way to the common area as the talking stopped. The video-ended tone sounded, and then what sounded like a head being slammed onto a desk. A few minutes later, Captain Elkans called Robert out of the common area to talk in the hallway. 


Her face was twisted with emotion, beak shut tightly and eyes narrow. “Commander Vorggel and I  were just talking about your Earth origins and how it could affect your judgement if you had any living earth family or relations. I argued that you barely remembered Earth and had done most of your growing up on Kylus IV, but Vorggel insisted that if you had any earth relations that you would have to leave Earth and the rest of the exploration mission and go home. You’ll be fine to stay if you can prove your lack of living relatives.


Robert was shocked. “But how would I know? The only thing I have to go on is my last name. I don’t even know where I was born! And Johnson is a super common human last name.


Elkans sighed. “I’ll be honest. You’re one of my best crew members. It would be horrible to lose you for this mission.“ She lowered her voice and leaned down close to Robert. “If you can’t find anything, I could pull a few strings and doctor up some death certificates. That’s how humans prove they’re actually dead, or at least that’s what Vorggel says.” Elkans flapped a few of her arms. “Anyway, I’d hate to lose you, so let me know if you need some help with the proof.” She strode down the hallway as if she hadn’t just defied a Commander and Robert gaped in shock behind her.