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Yesterday's Kin

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Yesterday's Kin

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Author: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Tachyon Publications, 2014
Series: Yesterday's Kin

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Book Type: Novella
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: First Contact
Alien Invasion
Hard SF
Avg Member Rating:
(28 reads / 21 ratings)


Nebula-nominated novella

Aliens have landed in New York. After several months of no explanations, they finally reveal the reason for their arrival.

The news is not good.

Geneticist Marianne Jenner is having a career breakthrough, yet her family is tearing itself apart. Her children Elizabeth and Ryan constantly bicker, agreeing only that an alien conspiracy is in play. Her youngest, Noah, is addicted to a drug that keeps temporarily changing his identity. The Jenner family could not be further apart. But between the four of them, the course of human history will be forever altered.

Earth's most elite scientists have ten months to prevent a disaster--and not everyone is willing to wait.

Anthologized in Paula Guran's The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas 2015.



The FBI politely declined to answer any of Marianne's questions. Politely, they confiscated her cell and iPad and took her in a sleek black car down Route 87 to New York, through the city to lower Manhattan, and out to a harbor pier. Gates with armed guards controlled access to a heavily fortified building at the end of the pier. Politely, she was searched and fingerprinted. Then she was politely asked to wait in a small windowless room equipped with a few comfortable chairs, a table with coffee and cookies, and a wall-mounted TV tuned to CNN. A news show was covering weather in Florida.

The aliens had shown up four months ago, their ship barreling out from the direction of the sun, which had made it harder to detect until a few weeks before arrival. At first, in fact, the ship had been mistaken for an asteroid and there had been panic that it would hit Earth. When it was announced that the asteroid was in fact an alien vessel, panic had decreased in some quarters and increased in others. A ship? Aliens? Armed forces across the world mobilized. Communications strategies were formed, and immediately hacked by the curious and technologically sophisticated. Seven different religions declared the end of the world. The stock and bond markets crashed, rallied, soared, crashed again, and generally behaved like a reed buffeted by a hurricane. Governments put the world's top linguists, biologists, mathematicians, astronomers, and physicists on top-priority standby. Psychics blossomed. People rejoiced and feared and prayed and committed suicide and sent up balloons in the general direction of the moon, where the alien ship eventually parked itself in orbit.

Contact was immediate, in robotic voices that were clearly mechanical, and in halting English that improved almost immediately. The aliens, dubbed by the press "Denebs" because their ship came from the general direction of that bright, blue-white star, were friendly. The xenophiles looked smugly triumphant. The xenophobes disbelieved the friendliness and bided their time. The aliens spent two months talking to the United Nations. They were reassuring; this was a peace mission. They were also reticent. Voice communication only, and through machines. They would not show themselves: "Not now. We wait." They would not visit the International Space Station, nor permit humans to visit their ship. They identified their planet, and astronomers found it once they knew where to look, by the faintly eclipsed light from its orange-dwarf star. The planet was in the star's habitable zone, slightly larger than Earth but less dense, water present. It was nowhere near Deneb, but the name stuck.

After two months, the aliens requested permission to build what they called an embassy, a floating pavilion, in New York Harbor. It would be heavily shielded and would not affect the environment. In exchange, they would share the physics behind their star drive, although not the engineering, with Earth, via the Internet. The UN went into furious debate. Physicists salivated. Riots erupted, pro and con, in major cities across the globe. Conspiracy theorists, some consisting of entire governments, vowed to attack any Deneb presence on Earth.

The UN finally agreed, and the structure went into orbit around Earth, landed without a splash in the harbor, and floated peacefully offshore. After landing, it grew wider and flatter, a half-dome that could be considered either an island or a ship. The US government decided it was a ship, subject to maritime law, and the media began capitalizing and italicizing it: the Embassy. Coast Guard craft circled it endlessly; the US Navy had ships and submarines nearby. Airspace above was a no-fly zone, which was inconvenient for jets landing at New York's three big airports. Fighter jets nearby stayed on high alert.

Nothing happened.

For another two months the aliens continued to talk through their machines to the UN, and only to the UN, and nobody ever saw them. It wasn't known whether they were shielding themselves from Earth's air, microbes, or armies. The Embassy was surveilled by all possible means. If anybody learned anything, the information was classified except for a single exchange:

Why are you here?

To make contact with humanity. A peace mission.

A musician set the repeated phrases to music, a sly and humorous refrain, without menace. The song, an instant international sensation, was the opening for playfulness about the aliens. Late-night comics built monologues around supposed alien practices. The Embassy became a tourist attraction, viewed through telescopes, from boats outside the Coast Guard limit, from helicopters outside the no-fly zone. A German fashion designer scored an enormous runway hit with "the Deneb look," despite the fact that no one knew how the Denebs looked. The stock market stabilized as much as it ever did. Quickie movies were shot, some with Deneb allies and some with treacherous Deneb foes who wanted our women or gold or bombs. Bumper stickers proliferated like kudzu: I BRAKE FOR DENEBS. EARTH IS FULL ALREADY--GO HOME. DENEBS DO IT INVISIBLY. WILL TRADE PHYSICS FOR FOOD.

The aliens never commented on any of it. They published the promised physics, which only a few dozen people in the world could understand. They were courteous, repetitive, elusive. Why are you here? To make contact with humanity. A peace mission.

Marianne stared at the TV, where CNN showed footage of disabled children choosing Halloween costumes. Nothing about the discussion, the room, the situation felt real. Why would the aliens want to talk to her? It had to be about her paper, nothing else made sense. No, that didn't make sense either.

"--donated by a network of churches from five states. Four-year-old Amy seizes eagerly on the black-cat costume, while her friend Kayla chooses--"

Her paper was one of dozens published every year on evolutionary genetics, each paper adding another tiny increment to statistical data on the subject. Why this one? Why her? The UN Secretary General, various presidents and premiers, top scientists--the press said they all talked to the Denebs from this modern fortress, through (pick one) highly encrypted devices that permitted no visuals, or one-way visuals, or two-way visuals that the UN was keeping secret, or not at all and the whole alien-human conversation was invented. The Embassy, however, was certainly real. Images of it appeared on magazine covers, coffee mugs, screen savers, tee shirts, paintings on velvet, targets for shooting ranges.

Marianne's daughter Elizabeth regarded the aliens with suspicion, but then, Elizabeth regarded everyone with suspicion. It was one reason she was the youngest Border Patrol section leader in the country, serving on the New York Task Force along with several other agencies. She fit right in with the current American obsession with isolationism as an economic survival strategy.

Ryan seldom mentioned the aliens. He was too absorbed in his career and his wife.

And Noah--did Noah, her problem child, even realize the aliens were here? Marianne hadn't seen Noah in months. In the spring he had gone to "try life in the South." An occasional email turned up on her phone, never containing much actual information. If Noah was back in New York, he hadn't called her yet. Marianne didn't want to admit what a relief that was. Her child, her baby--but every time they saw each other, it ended in recriminations or tears.

And what was she doing, thinking about her children instead of the aliens? Why did the ambassador want to talk to her? Why were the Denebs here?

To make contact with humanity. A peace mission...

"Dr. Jenner?"

"Yes." She stood up from her chair, her jaw set. Somebody better give her some answers, now.

The young man looked doubtfully at her clothes, dark jeans and a green suede blazer ten years old, her standard outfit for faculty parties. He said, "Secretary Desai will join you shortly."

Marianne tried to let her face show nothing. A few moments later Vihaan Desai, Secretary General of the United Nations, entered the room, followed by a security detail. Tall, elderly, he wore a sky-blue kurta of heavy, richly embroidered silk. Marianne felt like a wren beside a peacock. Desai held out his hand but did not smile. Relations between the United States and India were not good. Relations between the United States and everybody were not good, as the country relentlessly pursued its new policy of economic isolationism in an attempt to protect jobs. Until the Denebs came, with their cosmos-shaking distraction, the UN had been thick with international threats. Maybe it still was.

"Dr. Jenner," Desai said, studying her intently, "it seems we are both summoned to interstellar conference." His English, in the musical Indian accent, was perfect. Marianne remembered that he spoke four languages.

She said, "Do you know why?"

Her directness made him blink. "I do not. The Deneb ambassador was insistent but not forthcoming."

And does humanity do whatever the ambassador insists on? Marianne did not say this aloud. Something here was not adding up. The Secretary General's next words stunned her.

"We, plus a few others, are invited aboard the Embassy. The invitation is dependent upon your presence, and upon its immediate acceptance."

"Aboard... aboard the Embassy?"

"It seems so."

"But nobody has ever--"

"I am well aware of that." The dark, intelligent eyes never left her face. "We await only the other guests who happen to be in New York."

"I see." She didn't.

Desai turned to his security detail and spoke to them in Hindi. An argument began. Did security usually argue with their protectees? Marianne wouldn't have thought so, but then, what did she know about UN protocol? She was out of her field, her league, her solar system. Her guess was that the Denebs were not allowing bodyguards aboard the Embassy, and that the security chief was protesting.

Evidently the Secretary General won. He said to her, "Please come," and walked with long strides from the room. His kurta rustled at his ankles, shimmering sky. Not intuitive, Marianne could nonetheless sense the tension coming off him like heat. They went down a long corridor, trailed by deeply frowning guards, and down an elevator. Very far down--did the elevator go under the harbor? It must. They exited into a small room already occupied by two people, a man and a woman. Marianne recognized the woman: Ekaterina Zaytsev, the representative to the UN from the Russian Federation. The man might be the Chinese representative. Both looked agitated.

Desai said in English, "We await only--ah, here they are."

Two much younger men practically blew into the room, clutching headsets. Translators. They looked disheveled and frightened, which made Marianne feel better. She wasn't the only one battling an almost overwhelming sense of unreality. If only Evan could be here, with his sardonic and unflappable Britishness. "Or so we thought..."

No. Neither she nor Evan had ever thought of this.

"The other permanent members of the Security Council are unfortunately not immediately available," Desai said. "We will not wait."

Marianne couldn't remember who the other permanent members were. The UK, surely, but who else? How many? What were they doing this October dusk that would make them miss first contact with an alien species? Whatever it was, they had to regret it the rest of their lives.

Unless, of course, this little delegation never returned--killed or kidnapped or eaten. No, that was ridiculous. She was being hysterical. Desai would not go if there were danger.

Of course he would. Anyone would. Wouldn't they? Wouldn't she? Nobody, she suddenly realized, had actually asked her to go on this mission. She'd been ordered to go. What if she flat-out refused?

A door opened at the far end of the small room, voices spoke from the air about clearance and proceeding, and then another elevator. The six people stepped into what had to be the world's most comfortable and unwarlike submarine, equipped with lounge chairs and gold-braided officers.

A submarine. Well, that made sense, if plans had been put in place to get to the Embassy unobserved by press, tourists, and nut jobs who would blow up the alien base if they could. The Denebs must have agreed to some sort of landing place or entryway, which meant this meeting had been talked of, planned for, long before today. Today was just the moment the aliens had decided to put the plan into practice. Why? Why so hastily?

"Dr. Jenner," Desai said, "in the short time we have here, please explain your scientific findings to us."

None of them sat in the lounge chairs. They stood in a circle around Marianne, who felt none of the desire to toy with them as she had with Dr. Curtis at the college. Where were her words going, besides this cramped, luxurious submarine? Was the president of the United States listening, packed into the situation room with whoever else belonged there?

"My paper is nothing startling, Mr. Secretary General, which is why this is all baffling to me. In simple terms--" she tried to not be distracted by the murmuring of the two translators into their mouthpieces "--all humans alive today are the descendants of one woman who lived about 150,000 years ago. We know this because of mitochondrial DNA, which is not the DNA from the nucleus of the cell but separate DNA found in small organelles called mitochondria. Mitochondria, which exist in every cell of your body, are the powerhouses of the cell, producing energy for cellular functions. Mitochondrial DNA does not undergo recombination and is not found in a sperm cell after it reaches the egg. So the mitochondrial DNA is passed down unchanged from a mother to all her children.

Marianne paused, wondering how to explain this simply, but without condescension. "Mitochondrial DNA mutates at a steady rate, about one mutation every 10,000 years in a section called 'the control region,' and about once every 3,500 years in the mitochondrial DNA as a whole. By tracing the number and type of mutations in contemporary humans, we can construct a tree of descent: which group descended from which female ancestor.

"Evolutionary biologists have identified thirty of these haplogroups. I found a new one, L7, by sequencing and comparing DNA samples with a standard human mitochondrial sample, known as the revised Cambridge Reference Sequence."

"How did you know where to look for this new group?"

"I didn't. I came across the first sample by chance and then sampled her relatives."

"Is it very different, then, from the others?"

"No," Marianne said. "It's just a branch of the L haplogroup."

"Why wasn't it discovered before?"

"It seems to be rare. The line must have mostly died out over time. It's a very old line, one of the first divergences from Mitochondrial Eve."

"So there is nothing remarkable about your finding?"

"Not in the least. There may even be more haplogroups out there that we just haven't discovered yet." She felt a perfect fool. They all looked at her as if expecting answers--Look! A blinding scientific light illuminate all!--and she had none. She was a workman scientist who had delivered a workmanlike job of fairly routine haplotyping.

"Sir, we have arrived," said a junior officer. Marianne saw that his dress blues were buttoned wrong. They must have been donned in great haste. The tiny, human mishap made her feel better.

Desai drew a deep, audible breath. Even he, who had lived through war and revolution, was nervous. Commands flew through the air from invisible people. The submarine door opened.

Marianne stepped out into the alien ship.

Copyright © 2014 by Nancy Kress


Yesterday's Kin - Nancy Kress

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