I’d always said that if and when the aliens actually landed, it would be a let-down. I mean, after War of the Worlds, Close Encounters, and E.T., there was no way they could live up to the image in the public’s mind, good or bad.
I’d also said that they would look nothing like the aliens of the movies, and that they would not have come to A) kill us, B) take over our planet and enslave us, C) save us from ourselves à la The Day the Earth Stood Still,
or D) have sex with Earthwomen. I mean, I realize it’s hard to find
someone nice, but would aliens really come thousands of light-years
just to find a date? Plus, it seemed just as likely they’d be attracted
to wart hogs. Or yucca. Or air-conditioning units.
also always thought A) and B) were highly unlikely since imperialist
invader types would probably be too busy invading their next-door
neighbors and being invaded by other invader types to have time to go
after an out-of-the-way place like Earth, and as to C), I’m wary of
people or aliens who say they’ve come to save you, as witness
Reverend Thresher. And it seemed to me that aliens who were capable of
building the spaceships necessary to cross all those light-years would
necessarily have complex civilizations and therefore motives for coming
more compliated than merely incinerating Washington or phoning home.
What had never
occurred to me was that the aliens would arrive, and we still wouldn’t
know what those motives were after almost nine months of talking to
Now I’m not talking about an arrival where the
UFO swoops down in the Southwest in the middle of nowhere, mutilates a
few cows, makes a crop circle or two, abducts an extremely
unreliable and unintelligent-sounding person, probes them in
embarrassing places, and takes off again. I’d never believed the aliens
would do that either, and they didn’t, although they did land in the
southwest, sort of.
They landed their spaceship in
Denver, in the middle of the DU campus, and marched—well, actually
marched is the wrong word; the Altairi’s method of locomotion is
somewhere between a glide and a waddle—straight up to the front door of
University Hall in classic “Take me to your leader” fashion.
that was it. They (there were six of them) didn’t say, “Take us to your
leader!” or “One small step for aliens, one giant leap for alienkind,”
or even, “Earthmen, hand over your females.” Or your planet. They just
And stood there. Police cars surrounded
them, lights flashing. TV news crews and reporters pointed cameras at
them. F-16’s roared overhead, snapping pictures of their spaceship and
trying to determine whether A) it had a force field, or B) weaponry,
and C) they could blow it up (they couldn’t). Half the city fled to the
mountains in terror, creating an enormous traffic jam on I-70, and the
other half drove by the campus to see what was going on, creating an
enormous traffic jam on Evans.
The aliens, who by now
had been dubbed the Altairi because an astronomy professor at DU had
announced they were from the star Altair in the constellation Aquila
(they weren’t), didn’t react to any of this, which apparently convinced
the president of DU they weren’t going to blow up the place à la Independence Day. He came out and welcomed them to Earth and to DU.
continued to stand there. The mayor came and welcomed them to Earth and
to Denver. The governor came and welcomed them to Earth and to
Colorado, assured everyone it was perfectly safe to visit the state,
and implied the Altairi were just the latest in a long line of tourists
who had come from all over to see the magnificent Rockies, though that
seemed unlikely since they were facing the other way, and they didn’t
turn around, even when the governor walked past them to point at Pike’s
Peak. They just stood there, facing University Hall.
continued to stand there for the next three weeks, through an endless
series of welcoming speeches by scientists, State Department officials,
foreign dignitaries, and church and business leaders, and an assortment
of weather, including a late April snowstorm that broke branches and
power lines. If it hadn’t been for the expressions on their faces,
everybody would have assumed the Altairi were plants.
no plant ever glared like that. It was a look of utter, withering
disapproval. The first time I saw it in person, I thought, oh, my God,
it’s Aunt Judith.
She was actually my father’s aunt,
and she used to come over once a month or so, dressed in a suit, a hat,
and white gloves, and sit on the edge of a chair and glare at us, a
glare that drove my mother into paroxysms of cleaning and baking
whenever she found out Aunt Judith was coming. Not that Aunt Judith
criticized Mom’s housekeeping or her cooking. She didn’t. She didn’t
even make a face when she sipped the coffee Mom served her or draw a
white gloved finger along the mantelpiece, looking for dust. She didn’t
have to. Sitting there in stony silence while my mother desperately
tried to make conversation, her entire manner indicated disapproval. It
was perfectly clear from that glare of hers that she considered us
untidy, ill-mannered, ignorant, and utterly beneath contempt.
she never said what it was that displeased her (except for the
occasional, “Properly brought-up children do not speak unless spoken
to”), my mother frantically polished silverware, baked petits four,
wrestled my sister Tracy and me into starched pinafores and
patent-leather shoes and ordered us to thank Aunt Judith nicely for our
birthday presents (a card with a dollar bill in it), and scrubbed and
dusted the entire house to within an inch of its life. She even
redecorated the entire living room, but nothing did any good. Aunt
Judith still radiated disdain.
It would wilt even the
strongest person. My mother frequently had to lie down with a cold
cloth on her forehead after a visit from Aunt Judith, and the Altairi
had the same effect on the dignitaries and scientists and politicians
who came to see them. After the first time, the governor refused to
meet with them again, and the president, whose polls were already in
the low twenties and who couldn’t afford any more pictures of irate
citizens, refused to meet with them at all.
appointed a bipartisan commission, consisting of representatives from
the Pentagon, the State Department, Homeland Security, the House, the
Senate, and FEMA, to study them and find a way to communicate with
them, and then, after that was a bust, a second commission consisting
of experts in astronomy, anthropology, exobiology, and communications,
and then a third, consisting of whoever they were able to recruit and
who had anything resembling a theory about the Altairi or how to
communicate with them, which is where I come in. I’d written a series
of newspaper columns on aliens both before and after the Altairi
arrived. (I’d also written columns on tourists,
driving-with-cellphones, the traffic on I-70, the difficulty of finding
any nice men to date, and my Aunt Judith.)
recruited in late November to replace one of the language experts, who
quit “to spend more time with his wife and family.” I was picked by the
chair of the commission, Dr. Morthman, (who clearly didn’t realize that
my columns were meant to be humorous), but it didn’t matter, since he
had no intention of listening to me, or to anyone else on the
commission, which at that point consisted of three linguists, two
anthropologists, a cosmologist, a meteorologist, a botanist (in case
they were plants after all), experts in primate, avian, and insect
behavior (in case they were one of the above), an Egyptologist (in case
they turned out to have built the Pyramids), an animal psychic, an Air
Force colonel, a JAG lawyer, an expert in foreign customs, an expert in
non-verbal communications, a weapons expert, Dr. Morthman (who as far
as I could see, wasn’t an expert in anything), and, because of our
proximity to Colorado Springs, the head of the One True Way Maxichurch,
Reverend Thresher, who was convinced the Altairi were a herald of the
End Times. “There is a reason God had them land here,” he said. I
wanted to ask him why, if that was the case, they hadn’t landed in
Colorado Springs, but he wasn’t a good listener either.
only progress these people and their predecessors had made by the time
I joined the commission was to get the Altairi to follow them various
places, like in out of the weather and into the various labs that had
been set up in University Hall for studying them, although when I saw
the videotapes, it wasn’t at all clear they were responding to anything
the commission said or did. It looked to me like following Dr. Morthman
and the others was their own idea, particularly since at nine o’clock
every night they turned and glided/waddled back outside and disappeared
into their ship.
The first time they did that,
everyone panicked, thinking they were leaving. “Aliens Depart. Are They
Fed Up?” the evening news logo read, a conclusion which I felt was due
to their effect on people rather than any solid evidence. I mean, they
could have gone home to watch Jon Stewart on The Daily Show,
but even after they re-emerged the next morning, the theory persisted
that there was some sort of deadline, that if we didn’t succeed in
communicating with them within a fixed amount of time, the planet would
be reduced to ash. Aunt Judith had always made me feel exactly the same
way, that if I didn’t measure up, I was toast.
never did measure up, and nothing in particular happened, except she
stopped sending me birthday cards with a dollar in them, and I figured
if the Altairi hadn’t obliterated us after a few conversations with
Reverend Thresher (he was constantly reading them passages from
Scripture and trying to convert them), they weren’t going to.
it didn’t look like they were going to tell us what they were doing
here, either. The commission had tried speaking to them in nearly every
language, including Farsi, Navajo code-talk, and Cockney slang. They
had played them music, drummed, written out greetings, given them
several Power Point presentations, text-messaged them, and showed them
the Rosetta Stone. They’d also tried Ameslan and pantomime, though it
was obvious the Altairi could hear. Whenever someone spoke to them or
offered them a gift (or prayed over them), their expression of
disapproval deepened to one of utter contempt. Just like Aunt Judith.
the time I joined the commission, it had reached the same state of
desperation my mother had when she redecorated the living room and had
decided to try to impress the Altairi by taking them to see the sights
of Denver and Colorado, in the hope they’d react favorably.
“It won’t work,” I said. “My mother put up new drapes and wallpaper, and it didn’t have any effect at all,” but Dr. Morthman didn’t listen.
took them to the Denver Museum of Art and Rocky Mountain National Park
and the Garden of the Gods and a Broncos game. They just stood there,
sending out waves of disapproval.
Dr. Morthman was undeterred. “Tomorrow we’ll take them to the Denver Zoo.”
“Is that a good idea?” I asked. “I mean, I’d hate to give them ideas,” but Dr. Morthman didn’t listen.
the Altairi didn’t react to anything at the zoo, or to the Christmas
lights at Civic Center or to the Nutcracker ballet. And then we went to
By that point, the
commission had dwindled down to seventeen people (two of the linguists
and the animal psychic had quit), but it was still a large enough group
of observers that the Altairi ran the risk of being trampled in the
crowd. Most of the members, however, had stopped going on the field
trips, saying they were “pursuing alternate lines of research” that
didn’t require direct observation, which meant they couldn’t stand to
be glared at the whole way there and back in the van.
the day we went to the mall, there were only Dr. Morthman, the aroma
expert Dr. Wakamura, Reverend Thresher, and I. We didn’t even have any
press with us. When the Altairi’d first arrived, they were all over the
TV networks and CNN, but after a few weeks of the aliens doing nothing,
the networks had shifted to showing more exciting scenes from Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Men in Black II,
and then completely lost interest and gone back to Paris Hilton and
stranded whales. The only photographer with us was Leo, the teenager
Dr. Morthman had hired to videotape our outings, and as soon as we got
inside the mall, he said, “Do you think it’d be okay if I ducked out to
buy my girlfriend’s Christmas present before we start filming? I mean,
face it, they’re just going to stand there.”
right. The Altairi glide-waddled the length of several stores and then
stopped, glaring impartially at The Sharper Image and Gap window
displays and the crowds who stopped to gawk at the six of them and who
then, intimidated by their expressions, averted their eyes and hurried
The mall was jammed with couples loaded down with
shopping bags, parents pushing strollers, children, and a mob of
middle-school girls in green choir robes apparently waiting to sing.
The malls invited school and church choirs to come and perform this
time of year in the food court. The girls were giggling and chattering,
a toddler was shrieking, “I don’t want to!”, Julie Andrews was singing Joy to the World
on the piped-in Muzak, and Reverend Thresher was pointing at the
panty-, bra-, and wing-clad mannequins in the window of Victoria’s
Secret and saying, “Look at that! Sinful!”
Dr. Morthman, ahead of the Altairi, said, waving his arm like the
leader of a wagon train. “I want them to see Santa Claus,” and I
stepped to the side to get around a trio of teenage boys walking side
by side who’d cut me off from the Altairi.
There was a
sudden gasp, and the mall went quiet except for the Muzak. “What—?” Dr.
Morthman said sharply, and I pushed past the teenage boys to see what
The Altairi were sitting calmly in the
middle of the space between the stores, glaring. Fascinated shoppers
had formed a circle around them, and a man in a suit who looked like
the manager of the mall was hurrying up, demanding, “What’s going on
“This is wonderful,” Dr. Morthman said. “I knew
they’d respond if we just took them enough places.” He turned to me.
“You were behind them, Miss Yates. What made them sit down?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I couldn’t see them from where I was. Did—?”
“Go find Leo,” he ordered. “He’ll have it on tape.”
wasn’t so sure of that, but I went to look for him. He was just coming
out of Victoria’s Secret, carrying a small bright pink bag. “Meg, what
happened?” he asked.
“The Altairi sat down,” I said.
“That’s what we’re trying to find out. I take it you weren’t filming them?”
I told you, I had to buy my girlfriend—jeez, Dr. Morthman will kill
me.” He jammed the pink bag in his jeans pocket. “I didn’t think—”
start filming now,” I said, “and I’ll go see if I can find somebody who
caught it on their cellphone camera.” With all these people taking
their kids to see Santa, there was bound to be someone with a camera. I
started working my way around the circle of staring spectators, keeping
away from Dr. Morthman, who was telling the mall manager he needed to
cordon off this end of the mall and everyone in it.
“Everyone in it?” the manager gulped.
“Yes, it’s essential. The Altairi are obviously responding to something they saw or heard—”
“Or smelled,” Dr. Wakamura put in.
until we know what it was, we can’t allow anyone to leave,” Dr.
Morthman said. “It’s the key to our being able to communicate with
“But it’s only two weeks till Christmas,” the mall manager said. “I can’t just shut off—”
“You obviously don’t realize that the fate of the planet may be at stake,” Dr. Morthman said.
hoped not, especially since no one seemed to have caught the event on
film, though they all had their cell phones out and pointed at the
Altairi now, in spite of their glares. I looked across the circle,
searching for a likely parent or grandparent who might have—
choir. One of the girls’ parents was bound to have brought a
videocamera along. I hurried over to the troop of green-robed girls.
“Excuse me,” I said to them, “I’m with the Altairi—”
Mistake. The girls instantly began bombarding me with questions. “Why are they sitting down?”
“Why don’t they talk?”
“Why are they always so mad?”
“Are we going to get to sing? We didn’t get to sing yet.”
“They said we had to stay here. How long? We’re supposed to sing over at Flatirons Mall at six o’clock.”
“Are they going to get inside us and pop out of our stomachs?”
any of your parents bring a videocamera?” I tried to shout over their
questions, and when that failed, “I need to talk to your choir
“Are you his girlfriend?”
“No,” I said, trying to spot someone who looked like a choir director type. “Where is he?”
“Over there,” one of them said, pointing at a tall, skinny man in slacks and a blazer. “Are you going out with Mr. Ledbetter?”
“No,” I said, trying to work my way over to him.
“Why not? He’s really nice.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No,” I said as I reached him. “Mr. Ledbetter? I’m Meg Yates. I’m with the commission studying the Altairi—”
“You’re just the person I want to talk to Meg,” he said.
afraid I can’t tell you how long it’s going to be,” I said. “The girls
told me you have another singing engagement at six o’clock.”
“We do, and I’ve got a rehearsal tonight, but that isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“She doesn’t have a boyfriend, Mr. Ledbetter.”
took advantage of the interruption to say, “I was wondering if anyone
with your choir happened to record what just happened on a videocamera
“Probably. Belinda,” he said to the one who’d
told him I didn’t have a boyfriend, “go get your mother.” She took off
through the crowd. “Her mom started recording when we left the church.
And if she didn’t happen to catch it, Kaneesha’s mom probably did. Or
“Oh, thank goodness,” I said. “Our cameraman didn’t get it on film, and we need it to see what triggered their action.”
“What made them sit down, you mean?” he said. “You don’t need a video. I know what it was. The song.”
song?” I said. “A choir wasn’t singing when we came in, and anyway, the
Altairi have already been exposed to music. They didn’t react to it at
“What kind of music? Those notes from Close Encounters?”
“Yes,” I said defensively, “and Beethoven and Debussy and Charles Ives. A whole assortment of composers.”
instrumental music, not vocals, right? I’m talking about a song. One of
the Christmas carols on the piped-in Muzak. I saw them sit down. They
“Mr. Ledbetter, you wanted my mom?” Belinda said, dragging over a large woman with a videocam.
“Yes,” he said. “Mrs. Carlson, I need to see the video you shot of the choir today. From when we got to the mall.”
obligingly found the place and handed it to him. He fast-forwarded a
minute. “Oh, good, you got it,” he said, rewound, and held the camera
so I could see the little screen. “Watch.”
showed the bus with “First Presbyterian Church” on its side, the girls
getting off, the girls filing in the mall, the girls gathering in front
of Crate and Barrel, giggling and chattering, though the sound was too
low to hear what they were saying. “Can you turn the volume up?” Mr.
Ledbetter said to Mrs. Carlson, and she pushed a button.
The voices of the girls came on: “Mr. Ledbetter, can we go to the food court afterward for a pretzel?”
“Mr. Ledbetter, I don’t want to stand next to Heidi.”
“Mr. Ledbetter, I left my lip gloss on the bus.”
Altairi aren’t going to be on this, I thought. Wait, there, past the
green-robbed girls, was Dr. Morthman and Leo with his videocamera and
then the Altairi. They were just glimpses, though, not a clear view.
“I’m afraid—” I said.
“Shh,” Mr. Ledbetter said, pushing down on the volume button again, “listen.”
He had cranked the volume all the way up. I could hear Reverend Thresher saying, “Look at that! It’s absolutely disgusting!”
“Can you hear the Muzak, Meg?” Mr. Ledbetter asked.
“Sort of,” I said. “What is that?”
‘Joy to the World,’ ” he said, holding it so I could see. Mrs. Carlson
must have moved to get a better shot of the Altairi because there was
no one blocking the view of them as they followed Dr. Morthman. I tried
to see if they were glaring at anything in particular—the strollers or
the Christmas decorations or the Victoria’s Secret mannequins or the
sign for the restrooms—but if they were, I couldn’t tell.
“This way,” Dr. Morthman said on the tape, “I want them to see Santa Claus.”
“Okay, it’s right about here,” Mr. Ledbetter said. “Listen.”
“ ‘While shepherds watched . . .’ ” the Muzak choir sang tinnily.
could hear Reverend Thresher saying, “Blasphemous!” and one of the
girls asking, “Mr. Ledbetter, after we sing can we go to McDonald’s?”
and the Altairi abruptly collapsed onto the floor with a floomphing
motion, like a crinolined Scarlett O’Hara sitting down suddenly. “Did
you hear what they were singing?” Mr. Ledbetter said.
“ ‘All seated on the ground.’ ” Here,” he said, rewinding. “Listen.”
played it again. I watched the Altairi, focusing on picking out the
sound of the Muzak through the rest of the noise. “ ‘While shepherds
watched their flocks by night,’ ” the choir sang, “ ‘all seated on the
He was right. The Altairi sat down the instant the word “seated” ended. I looked at him.
he said happily. “The song said to sit down and they sat. I happened to
notice it because I was singing along with the Muzak. It’s a bad habit
of mine. The girls tease me about it.”
But why would
the Altairi respond to the words in a Christmas carol when they hadn’t
responded to anything else we’d said to them over the last nine months?
“Can I borrow this videotape?” I asked. “I need to show it to the rest
of the commission.”
“Sure,” he said and asked Mrs. Carlson.
“I don’t know,” she said reluctantly. “I have tapes of every single one of Belinda’s performances.”
“She’ll make a copy and get the original back to you,” Mr. Ledbetter told her. “Isn’t that right, Meg?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Great,” he said. “You can send the tape to me, and I’ll see to it Belinda gets it. Will that work?” he asked Mrs. Carlson.
nodded, popped the tape out, and handed it to me. “Thank you,” I said
and hurried back over to Dr. Morthman, who was still arguing with the
“You can’t just close the entire mall,” the manager was saying. “This is the biggest profit period of the year—”
“Dr. Morthman,” I said, “I have a tape here of the Altairi sitting down. It was taken by—”
“Not now,” he said. “I need you to go tell Leo to film everything the Altairi might have seen.”
“But he’s taping the Altairi,” I said. “What if they do something else?” but he wasn’t listening.
him we need a video-record of everything they might have responded to,
the stores, the shoppers, the Christmas decorations, everything. And
then call the police department and tell them to cordon off the parking
lot. Tell them no one’s to leave.”
“Cordon off—!” the mall manager said. “You can’t hold all these people here!”
these people need to be moved out of this end of the mall and into an
area where they can be questioned,” Dr. Morthman said.
“Questioned?” the mall manager, almost apoplectic, said.
“Yes, one of them may have seen what triggered their action—”
“Someone did,” I said. “I was just talking to—”
wasn’t listening. “We’ll need names, contact information, and
depositions from all of them,” he said to the mall manager. “And
they’ll need to be tested for infectious diseases. The Altairi may be
sitting down because they don’t feel well.”
“Dr. Morthman, they aren’t sick,” I said. “They—”
“Not now,” he said. “Did you tell Leo?”
gave up. “I’ll do it now,” I said and went over to where Leo was
filming the Altairi and told him what Dr. Morthman wanted him to do.
if the Altairi do something?” he said, looking at them sitting there
glaring. He sighed. “I suppose he’s right. They don’t look like they’re
going to move anytime soon.” He swung his camera around and started
filming the Victoria’s Secret window. “How long do you think we’ll be
I told him what Dr. Morthman had said.
“Jeez, he’s going to question all these people?” he said, moving to the Williams-Sonoma window. “I had somewhere to go tonight.”
these people have somewhere to go tonight, I thought, looking at the
crowd—mothers with babies in strollers, little kids, elderly couples,
teenagers. Including fifty middle-school girls who were supposed to be
at another performance an hour from now. And it wasn’t the choir
director’s fault Dr. Morthman wouldn’t listen.
need a room large enough to hold everyone,” Dr. Morthman was saying,
“and adjoining rooms for interrogating them,” and the mall manager was
shouting, “This is a mall, not Guantanamo!”
backed carefully away from Dr. Morthman and the mall manager and then
worked my way through the crowd to where the choir director was
standing, surrounded by his students. “But, Mr. Ledbetter,” one of them
was saying, “we’ll come right back, and the pretzel place is right over
“Mr. Ledbetter, could I speak to you for a moment?” I said.
“Sure. Shoo,” he said to the girls.
“But, Mr. Ledbetter—”
He ignored them. “What did the commission think of the Christmas carol theory?” he asked me.
“I haven’t had a chance to ask them. Listen, in another five minutes they’re going to lock down this entire mall.”
know, you’ve got another performance and if you’re going to leave,
you’d better do it right now. I’d go that way,” I said, pointing to the
“Thank you,” he said earnestly, “but won’t you get into trouble—?”
“If I need your choir’s depositions, I’ll call you,” I said. “What’s your number?”
“Belinda, give me a pen and something to write on,” he said. She handed him a pen and began rummaging in her backpack.
“Never mind,” he said, “there isn’t time.” He grabbed my hand and wrote the number on my palm.
“You said we aren’t allowed to write on ourselves,” Belinda said.
“You’re not,” he said. “I really appreciate this, Meg.”
I said, looking anxiously over at Dr. Morthman. If they didn’t go in
the next thirty seconds, they’d never make it, and there was no way he
could round up fifty middle-school girls in that short a time. Or even
make himself heard.
“Ladies,” he said, and raised his
hands, as if he were going to direct a choir. “Line up.” And to my
astonishment, they instantly obeyed him, forming themselves silently
into a line and walking quickly toward the east door with no giggling,
no “Mr. Ledbetter—?” My opinion of him went up sharply.
pushed quickly back through the crowd to where Dr. Morthman and the
mall manager were still arguing. Leo had moved farther down the mall to
film the Verizon Wireless store and away from the east door. Good. I
rejoined Dr. Morthman, moving to his right side so if he turned to look
at me, he couldn’t see the door.
“But what about bathrooms?” the manager was yelling. “The mall doesn’t have nearly enough bathrooms for all these people.”
The choir was nearly out the door. I watched till the last one disappeared, followed by Mr. Ledbetter.
get in portable toilets. Ms. Yates, arrange for Portapotties to be
brought in,” Dr. Morthman said, turning to me, and it was obvious he
had no idea I’d ever been gone. “And get Homeland Security on the
“Homeland Security!” the manager wailed. “Do
you know what it’ll do to business when the media gets hold—” He
stopped and looked over at the crowd around the Altairi.
was a collective gasp from them and then a hush. Someone must have
turned the Muzak off at some point because there was no sound at all in
the mall. “What—? Let me through,” Dr. Morthman said, breaking the
silence. He pushed his way through the circle of shoppers to see what
I followed in his wake. The Altairi
were slowly standing up, a motion somewhat like a string being pulled
taut.“Thank goodness,” the mall manager said, sounding infinitely
relieved. “Now that that’s over, I assume I can reopen the mall.”
Morthman shook his head. “This may be the prelude to another action, or
the response to a second stimulus. Leo, I want to see the video of what
was happening right before they began to stand up.”
“I didn’t get it,” Leo said.
“Didn’t get it?”
told me to tape the stuff in the mall,” he said, but Dr. Morthman
wasn’t listening. He was watching the Altairi, who had turned around
and were slowly glide-waddling back toward the east door.
after them” he ordered Leo. “Don’t let them out of your sight, and get
it on tape this time.” He turned to me. “You stay here and see if the
mall has surveillance tapes. And get all these people’s names and
contact information in case we need to question them.”
“Before you go, you need to know—”
The Altairi are leaving. And there’s no telling where they’ll go next,”
he said, and took off after them. “See if anyone caught the incident on
As it turned
out, the Altairi went only as far as the van we’d brought them to the
mall in, where they waited, glaring, to be transported back to DU. When
I got back, they were in the main lab with Dr. Wakamura. I’d been at
the mall nearly four hours, taking down names and phone numbers from
Christmas shoppers who said things like, “I’ve been here six hours with
two toddlers. Six hours!” and “I’ll have you know I missed my
grandson’s Christmas concert.” I was glad I’d helped Mr. Ledbetter and
his seventh-grade girls sneak out. They’d never have made it to the
other mall in time.
When I was finished taking names
and abuse, I went to ask the mall manager about surveillance tapes,
expecting more abuse, but he was so glad to have his mall open again,
he turned them over immediately. “Do these tapes have audio?” I asked
him, and when he said no, “You wouldn’t also have a tape of the
Christmas music you play, would you?”
I was almost
certain he wouldn’t—Muzak is usually piped in—but to my surprise he
said yes and handed over a CD. I stuck it and the tapes in my bag,
drove back to DU and went to the main lab to find Dr. Morthman. I found
Dr. Wakamura instead, squirting assorted food court smells—corn dog,
popcorn, sushi—at the Altairi to see if any of them made them sit down.
“I’m convinced they were responding to one of the mall’s aromas,” he
“Actually, I think they may have—”
“It’s just a question of findng the right one,” he said, squirting pizza at them. They glared.
“Where’s Dr. Morthman?”
“Next door,” he said, squirting essence of funnel cake. “He’s meeting with the rest of the commission.”
winced and went next door. “We need to look at the floor coverings in
the mall,” Dr. Short was saying. “The Altairi may well have been
responding to the difference between wood and stone.”
we need to take air samples,” Dr. Jarvis said. “They may have been
responding to something poisonous to them in our atmosphere.”
poisonous?” Reverend Thresher said. “Something blasphemous, you mean!
Angels in filthy underwear! The Altairi obviously refused to go any
farther into that den of iniquity, and they sat down in protest. Even
aliens know sin when they see it.”
“I don’t agree, Dr.
Jarvis,” Dr. Short said, ignoring Reverend Thresher. “Why would the air
in the mall have a different composition from the air in a museum or a
sports arena? We’re looking for variables here. What about sounds?
Could they be a factor?”
“Yes,” I said. “The Altairi were—”
you get the surveillance tapes, Miss Yates?” Dr. Morthman cut in. “Go
through and cue them up to the point just before the Altairi sat down.
I want to see what they were looking at.”
“It wasn’t what they were looking at,” I said. “It was—”
“And call the mall and get samples of their floor coverings,” he said. “You were saying, Dr. Short?”
left the surveillance tapes and the lists of shoppers on Dr.
Morthman’s desk, and then went down to the audio lab, found a CD
player, and listened to the songs: “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “White
Christmas,” “Joy to the World”—
Here it was. “While
shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground, the
angel of the Lord came down, and glory shone around.” Could the Altairi
have thought the song was talking about the descent of their spaceship?
Or were they responding to something else entirely, and the timing was
There was only one way to find
out. I went back to the main lab, where Dr. Wakamura was sticking
lighted candles under the Altairi’s noses. “Good grief, what is that?”
I asked, wrinkling my nose.
“Bayberry magnolia,” he said.
should smell sandalwood violet,” he said. “They were right next to
Candle in the Wind when they sat down. They may have been responding to
a scent from the store.”
“Any response?” I said, thinking their expressions, for once, looked entirely appropriate.
“No, not even to spruce watermelon, which smelled very alien. Did Dr. Morthman find any clues on the security tapes?” he asked hopefully.
“He hasn’t looked at them yet,” I said. “When you’re done here, I’ll be glad to escort the Altairi back to their ship.”
“Would you?” he said gratefully. “I’d really appreciate it. They look exactly like my mother-in-law. Can you take them now?”
I said and went over to the Altairi and motioned them to follow me,
hoping they wouldn’t veer off and go back to their ship since it was
nearly nine o’clock. They didn’t. They followed me down the hall and
into the audio lab. “I just want to try something,” I said and played
them “While Shepherds Watched.”
“ ‘While shepherds
watched their flocks,’ ” the choir sang. I watched the Altairi’s
unchanging faces. Mr. Ledbetter was wrong, I thought. They must have
been responding to something else. They’re not even listening.
“ ‘. . . by night, all seated . . .’ ”
The Altairi sat down.
got to call Mr. Ledbetter, I thought. I switched off the CD and punched
in the number he’d written on my hand. “Hi, this is Calvin Ledbetter,”
his recorded voice said. “Sorry I can’t come to the phone right now,”
and I remembered too late he’d said he had a rehearsal. “If you’re
calling about a rehearsal, the schedule is as follows: Thursday,
Mile-High Women’s Chorus, eight pm, Montview Methodist, Friday, chancel
choir, eleven am, First Presbyterian, Denver Symphony, two pm—” It was
obvious he wasn’t home. And that he was far too busy to worry about the
I hung up and looked over at them. They were
still sitting down, and it occurred to me that playing them the song
might have been a bad idea, since I had no idea what had made them
stand back up. It hadn’t been the Muzak because it had been turned off,
and if the stimulus had been something in the mall, we could be here
all night. After a few minutes, though, they stood up, doing that odd
pulled-string thing, and glared at me. “ ‘While shepherds watched their
flocks by night,’ ” I said to them, “ ‘all seated on the ground.’ ”
They continued to stand.
“ ‘Seated on the ground,” I repeated. “Seated. Sit!”
No response at all.
played the song again. They sat down right on cue. Which still didn’t
prove they were doing what the words told them to do. They could be
responding to the mere sound of singing. The mall had been noisy when
they first walked in. “While Shepherds Watched” might have been the
first song they’d been able to hear, and they’d sit down whenever they
heard singing. I waited till they stood up again and then played the
two preceding tracks. They didn’t respond to Bing Crosby singing “White
Christmas” or to Julie Andrews singing “Joy to the World.” Or to the
breaks between songs. There wasn’t even any indication they were aware
anyone was singing.
“ ‘While shepherds watched their
flocks by-y night . . .’ ” the choir began. I tried to stay still and
keep my face impassive, in case they were responding to nonverbal cues
I was giving them. “ ‘. . . ah-all seated—’ ”
down at exactly the same place, so it was definitely those particular
words. Or the voices singing them. Or the particular configuration of
notes. Or the rhythm. Or the frequencies of the notes.
it was, I couldn’t figure it out tonight. It was nearly ten o’clock. I
needed to get the Altairi back to their spaceship. I waited for them to
stand up and then led them, glaring, out to their ship, and went back
to my apartment.
The message light on my answering
machine was flashing. It was probably Dr. Morthman, wanting me to go
back to the mall and take air samples. I hit play. “Hi, this is Mr.
Ledbetter,” the choir director’s voice said. “From the mall, remember?
I need to talk to you about something.” He gave me his cell phone
number and repeated his home phone, “in case it washed off. I should be
home by eleven. Till then, whatever you do, don’t let your alien guys listen to any more Christmas carols.”
was no answer at either of the numbers. He turns his cell phone off
during rehearsals, I thought. I looked at my watch. It was ten-fifteen.
I grabbed the yellow pages, looked up the address of Montview
Methodist, and took off for the church, detouring past the Altairi’s
ship to make sure it was still there and hadn’t begun sprouting guns
from its ports or flashing ominous lights. It hadn’t. It was its usual
Sphinx-like self, which reassured me. A little.
took me twenty minutes to reach the church. I hope rehearsal isn’t over
and I’ve missed him, I thought, but there were lots of cars in the
parking lot, and light still shone though the stained-glass windows.
The front doors, however, were locked.
I went around
to the side door. It was unlocked, and I could hear singing from
somewhere inside. I followed the sound down a darkened hall.
song abruptly stopped, in the middle of a word. I waited a minute,
listening, and when it didn’t start up again, began trying doors. The
first three were locked, but the fourth opened onto the sanctuary. The
women’s choir was up at the very front, facing Mr. Ledbetter, whose
back was to me. “Top of page ten,” he was saying.
Thank goodness he’s still here, I thought, slipping in the back.
“From ‘O hear the angel voices,’ ” he said, nodded to the organist, and raised his baton.
“Wait, where do we take a breath?” one of the women asked. “After ‘voices’ ?”
after divine,’ ” he said, consulting the music in front of him on the
music stand, “and then at the bottom of page thirteen.”
Another woman said, “Can you play the alto line for us? From ‘fall on your knees’ ? ”
was obviously going to take a while, and I couldn’t afford to wait. I
started up the aisle toward them, and the entire choir looked up from
their music and glared at me. Mr. Ledbetter turned around, and his face
lit up. He turned to the women again, said, “I’ll be right back,” and
sprinted down the aisle to me. “Meg,” he said, reaching me. “Hi. What—?”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but I got your message, and—”
“You’re not interrupting. Really. We were almost done anyway.”
did you mean, don’t play them any more Christmas carols? I didn’t get
your message till after I’d played them some of the other songs from
“And what happened?”
“Nothing, but on your message you said—”
“ ‘Joy to the World’ and—”
“All four verses?”
“No, only two. That’s all that were on the CD. The first one and the one about ‘wonders of his love.’ ”
and four,” he said, staring past me, his lips moving rapidly as if he
were running through the lyrics. “Those should be okay—”
“What do you mean? Why did you leave that message?”
if the Altairi were responding literally to the words in ‘While
Shepherds Watched,’ Christmas carols are full of dangerous—”
“Yes. Look at ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are.’ You didn’t play them that, did you?”
“No, just ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘White Christmas.’ ”
“Mr. Ledbetter,” one of the women called from the front of the church. “How long are you going to be?”
“I’ll be right there,” he said. He turned back to me. “How much of ‘While Shepherds Watched’ did you play them?”
“Just the part up to ‘all seated on the ground.’ ”
“Not the other verses?”
“Mr. Ledbetter,” the same woman said impatiently, “some of us have to leave.”
“I’ll be right there,” he called to her, and to me, “Give me five minutes,” and sprinted back up the aisle.
sat down in a back pew, picked up a hymnal, and tried to find “We Three
Kings.” That was easier said than done. The hymns were numbered, but
they didn’t seem to be in any particular order. I turned to the back,
looking for an index.
“But we still haven’t gone over ‘Saviour of the Heathen, Come,’ ” a young, pretty redhead said.
“We’ll go over it Saturday night,” Mr. Ledbetter said.
index didn’t tell me where “We Three Kings” was either. It had rows of
numbers—188.8.131.52. and 8.8.7.D.—with a column of strange words below
them—Laban, Hursley, Olive’s Brow, Arizona—like some sort of code.
Could the Altairi be responding to some sort of cipher embedded in the
carol like in The Da Vinci Code? I hoped not.
“When are we supposed to be there?” the women were asking.
“Seven,” Mr. Ledbetter said.
“But that won’t give us enough time to run over ‘Saviour of the Heathen Come,’ will it?”
“And what about ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’?” the redhead asked. “We don’t have the second soprano part.”
abandoned the index and began looking through the hymns. If I couldn’t
figure out a simple hymnal, how could I hope to figure out a completely
alien race’s communications? If they were trying to
communicate. They might have been sitting down to listen to the music,
like you’d stop to look at a flower. Or maybe their feet just hurt.
“What kind of shoes are we supposed to wear?” the choir was asking.
“Comfortable,” Mr. Ledbetter said. “You’re going to be on your feet a long time.”
continued to search through the hymnal. Here was “What Child Is This?”
I had to be on the right track. “Bring a Torch, Jeannette Isabella . .
.” It had to be here somewhere. “On Christmas Night, All People Sing—”
were finally gathering up their things and leaving. “See you Saturday,”
he said, herding them out the door, all except for the pretty redhead,
who buttonholed him at the door to say, “I was wondering if you could
stay and go over the second soprano part with me again. It’ll only take
a few minutes.”
“I can’t tonight,” he said. She turned and glared at me, and I knew exactly what that glare meant.
me and we’ll run through it Saturday night,” he said, shut the door on
her, and sat down next to me. “Sorry, big performance Saturday. Now,
about the aliens. Where were we?”
“ ‘We Three Kings.’ You said the words were dangerous.”
right.” He took the hymnal from me, flipped expertly to the right page,
pointed. “Verse four. ‘Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying’—I assume
you don’t want the Altairi locking themselves in a stone-cold tomb.”
“No,” I said fervently. “You said ‘Joy to the World’ was bad, too. What does it have in it?”
“Sorrow, sins, thorns infesting the ground.”
“You think they’re doing whatever the hymns tell them? That they’re treating them like orders to be followed?”
don’t know, but if they are, there are all kinds of things in Christmas
carols you don’t want them doing: running around on rooftops, bringing
torches, killing babies—”
“Killing babies?” I said. “What carol is that in?”
Coventry Carol,” he said flipping to another page. “The verse about
Herod. See?” he pointed to the words. “ ‘Charged he hath this day . . .
all children young to slay.’ ”
“Oh, my gosh, that carol was one of the ones from the mall. It was on the CD,” I said. “I’m so glad I came to see you.”
“So am I,” he said, and smiled at me.
“You asked me how much of ‘While Shepherds Watched,’ I’d played them,” I said. “Is there child-slaying in that, too?”
“No, but verse two has got ‘fear’ and ‘mighty dread’ in it, and ‘seized their troubled minds.’ ”
“I definitely don’t want the Altairi to do that,” I said, “but now I don’t know what
to do. We’ve been trying to establish communications with the Altairi
for nine months, and that song was the first thing they’ve ever
responded to. If I can’t play them Christmas carols—”
didn’t say that. We just need to make sure the ones you play them don’t
have any mayhem in them. You said you had a CD of the music they were
playing in the mall?”
“Yes. That’s what I played them.”
Ledbetter?” a voice said tentatively, and a balding man in a clerical
collar leaned in the door. “How much longer will you be? I need to lock
“Oh, sorry, Reverend McIntyre,” he said and stood
up. “We’ll get out of your way.” He ran up the aisle, grabbed his
music, and came back. “You’ll be at the aches, right?” he said to
The aches? You must have misunderstood what he said, I thought.
“I’m not sure,” Reverend McIntyre said. “My handle’s pretty rusty.”
Handle? What were they talking about?
“Especially ‘The Hallelujah Chorus.’ It’s been years since I last sang it.”
Oh, Handel, not handle.
“I’m rehearsing it with First Pres’s choir at eleven tomorrow if you want to come and run through it with us.”
“I just may do that.”
“Great,” Mr. Ledbetter said. “Good night.” He led me out of the sanctuary. “Where’s your car parked?”
“Out in front.”
“Good. Mine, too.” He opened the side door. “You can follow me to my apartment.”
I had a sudden blinding vision of Aunt Judith glaring disapprovingly at me and saying, “A nice young lady never goes to a gentleman’s apartment alone.”
“You did say you brought the music from the mall with you, didn’t you?” he asked.
is what you get for jumping to conclusions, I thought, following him to
his apartment and wondering if he was going out with the redheaded
“On the way over I was thinking about
all this,” he said when we got to his apartment building, “and I think
the first thing we need to do is figure out exactly which element or
elements of ‘all seated on the ground’ they’re responding to, the
notes—I know you said they’d been exposed to music before, but it could
be this particular configuration of notes—or words.”
I told him about reciting the lyrics to them.
“Okay, then, the next thing we do is see if it’s the accompaniment,” he said, unlocking the door. “Or the tempo. Or the key.”
“The key?” I said, looking down at the keys in his hand.
“Yeah, have you ever seen Jumpin’ Jack Flash?”
movie. Whoopi Goldberg. In it, the key to the spy’s code is the key.
Literally. B flat. ‘While Shepherds Watched’ is in the key of C, but
‘Joy to the World’ is in D. That may be why they didn’t respond to it.
Or they may only respond to the sound of certain instruments. What
Beethoven did they listen to?”
“The Ninth Symphony.”
frowned. “Then that’s unlikely, but there might be a guitar or blocks
or something in the ‘While Shepherds Watched,’ accompaniment. We’ll
see. Come on in,” he said, opening the door and immediately vanishing
into the bedroom. “There’s soda in the fridge,” he called back to me.
“Go ahead and sit down.”
That was easier said than
done. The couch, chair, and coffee table were all covered with CDs,
music, and clothes. “Sorry,” he said, coming back in with a laptop. He
set it down on top of a stack of books and moved a pile of laundry from
the chair so I could sit down. “December’s a bad month. And this year,
in addition to my usual five thousand concerts and church services and
cantata performances, I’m directing aches.”
I hadn’t misheard him before. “Aches?” I said.
A-C-H-E-S. The All-City Holiday Ecumenical Sing. ACHES. Or, as my
seventh-grade girls call it, Aches and Pains. It’s a giant
concert—well, not actually a concert because everybody sings, even the
audience. But all the city singing groups and church choirs
participate.” He moved a stack of LPs off the couch and onto the floor
and sat down across from me. “Denver has it every year. At the
convention center. Have you ever been to a Sing?” he said, and when I
shook my head, “It’s pretty impressive. Last year three thousand people
and forty-four choirs participated.”
“And you’re directing?”
Actually, it’s a much easier job than directing my church choirs. Or my
seventh-grade girls’ glee. And it’s kind of fun. It used to be the
All-City Messiah, you know, a whole bunch of people getting together to sing Handel’s Messiah,
but then they had a request from the Unitarians to include some
Solstice songs, and it kind of snowballed from there. Now we do
Hanukkah songs and ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ and ‘The
Seven Nights of Kwanzaa,’ along with Christmas carols and selections
from the Messiah. Which, by the way, we can’t let the Altairi listen to either.”
“Is there children-slaying in that, too?”
‘Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron,’ and ‘dash them in pieces.’
There’s also wounding, bruising, cutting, deriding, and laughing to
“Actually, the Altairi already know all about scorn,” I said.
hopefully not about shaking nations. And covering the earth with
darkness,” he said. “Okay,” he opened his laptop, “the first thing I’m
going to do is scan in the song. Then I’ll remove the accompaniment so
we can play them just the vocals.”
“What can I do?”
he said, disappearing into the other room again and returning with a
foot-high stack of sheet music and music books which he dumped in my
lap, “can make a list of all the songs we don’t want the Altairi to
I nodded and started through The Holly Jolly Book of Christmas Songs.
It was amazing how many carols, which I’d always thought were about
peace and good will, had violent lyrics. “Coventry Carol” wasn’t the
only one with child-slaying in it. “Christmas Day is Come” did, too,
along with references to sin, strife, and militants. “O Come, O Come,
Emmanuel” had strife, too, and envy and quarrels. “The Holly and the
Ivy” had bones, blood, and bears, and “Good King Wenceslas” talked
about cruelty, bringing people flesh, freezing their blood, and heart
“I had no idea Christmas carols were so grim,” I said.
should hear Easter,” Mr. Ledbetter said. “While you’re looking, see if
you can find any songs with the word ‘seated’ in them so we can see if
it’s the word they’re responding to.”
I nodded and
went back to reading lyrics. In “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,”
everyone was standing, not seated, plus it had fear, trembling, and a
line about giving oneself for heavenly food. “The First Noel” had
“blood,” and the shepherds were lying, not sitting.
Christmas song has “seated” in it? I thought, trying to remember.
Wasn’t there something in “Jingle Bells” about Miss Somebody or other
being seated by someone’s side?
There was, and in “Wassail, Wassail,” there was a line about a-sitting by the fire, but not “seated.”
kept looking. The non-religious Christmas songs were almost as bad as
the carols. Even a children’s song like “I’m Getting’ Nuttin’ for
Christmas” gaily discussed smashing bats over people’s heads, and there
seemed to be an entire genre of “Grandma Got Run Over by a
Reindeer”-type songs: “Grandma’s Killer Fruitcake,” “I Came Upon a
Roadkill Deer,” and “Grandpa’s Gonna Sue the Pants Off Santa.”
even when the lyrics weren’t violent, they had phrases in them like
“rule o’er all the earth” and “over us all to reign,” which the Altairi
might take as an invitation to global conquest.
There have to be some carols that are harmless, I thought, and looked up “Away in a Manger” in the index (which The Holly Jolly Book,
unlike the hymnal, did have.) “. . . lay down his sweet head . . . the
stars in the sky . . .” No mayhem here, I thought. I can definitely add
this to the list. “Love . . . blessings . . . ‘and take us to heaven to
live with thee there.” A harmless enough line, but it might mean
something entirely different to the Altairi. I didn’t want to find
myself on a spaceship heading back to Aquila or wherever it was they
We worked till almost three in the morning,
by which time we had separate recordings of the vocals, accompaniment,
and notes (played by Mr. Ledbetter on the piano, guitar, and flute and
recorded by me) of “all seated on the ground,” a list, albeit rather
short, of songs the Altairi could safely hear, and another, even
shorter list of ones with “seated,” “sit,” or “sitting” in them.
“Thank you so much, Mr. Ledbetter,” I said, putting on my coat.
“Calvin,” he said.
“Calvin. Anyway, thank you. I really appreciate this. I’ll let you know the results of my playing the songs for them.”
“Are you kidding, Meg?” he said. “I want to be there when you do this.”
I thought—don’t you have to rehearse with the choirs for your ACHES
thing?” I said, remembering the heavy schedule he’d left on his
“Yes, and I have to rehearse with
the symphony, and with the chancel choir and the kindergarten choir and
the handbell choir for the Christmas Eve service—”
“Oh, and I’ve kept you up so late,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”
directors never sleep in December,” he said lightly, “and what I was
going to say was that I’m free in between rehearsals and till eleven
tomorrow morning. How early can you get the Altairi?”
“They usually come out of their ship around seven, but some of the other commission members may want to work with them.”
“And face those bright shiny faces before they’ve had their coffee? My bet is you’ll have the Altairi all to yourself.”
was probably right. I remembered Dr. Jarvis saying he had to work
himself up to seeing the Altairi over the course of the day. “They look
just like my fifth-grade teacher,” he’d said.
“Are you sure you want to face them first thing in the morning?” I asked him. “The Altairi’s glares—”
nothing compared to the glare of a soprano who didn’t get the solo she
wanted. Don’t worry, I can handle the Altairi,” he said. “I can’t wait
to find out what it is the Altairi are responding to.”
What we found out was nothing.
had been right. There was no one else waiting outside University Hall
when the Altairi appeared. I hustled them into the audio lab, locked
the door, and called Calvin, and he came right over, bearing Starbucks
coffee and an armload of CDs.
“Yikes!” he said when he
saw the Altairi standing over by the speakers. “I was wrong about the
soprano. This is more a seventh-grader’s, ‘No, you can’t text-message
during the choir concert, or wear face glitter,’ glare.”
I shook my head. “It’s an Aunt Judith glare.”
very glad we decided not to play them the part about dashing people’s
heads into pieces,” he said. “Are you sure they didn’t come to Earth to
“No,” I said. “That’s why we have to establish communications with them.”
he said, and proceeded to play the accompaniment we’d recorded the
night before. Nothing, and nothing when he played the notes with piano,
guitar, and flute, but when he played the vocal part by itself, the
Altairi promptly sat down.
“Definitely the words,” he
said, and when we played them “Jingle Bells,” they sat down again at
“seated by my side,” which seemed to confirm it.
But when he played them the first part of “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” from Guys and Dolls and “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” they didn’t sit down for either one.
“Which means it’s the word ‘seated,’ ” I said.
“Or they only respond to Christmas songs,” he said. “Do you have some other carol we can play them?”
“Not with ‘seated,’ ” I said. “ ‘All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,’ has ‘sitting’ in it.”
We played it for them. No response, but when he played “We Need A Little Christmas,” from the musical Mame, the Altairi sat down the moment the recording reached the word “sitting.”
cut off the rest of the phrase, since we didn’t want Altairi sitting on
our shoulders, and looked at me. “So why did they respond to this
‘sitting’ and not the one in ‘All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front
I was tempted to say, “Because “ ‘All I Want
for Christmas’ is an absolutely terrible song,” but I didn’t. “The
voices?” I suggested.
“Maybe,” he said and shuffled
through the CDs till he found a recording of the same song by the
Statler Brothers. The Altairi sat down at exactly the same place.
So not the voices. And not Christmas. When Calvin played them the opening number from 1776,
they sat down again as the Continental Congress sang orders to John
Adams to “sit down.” And it wasn’t the verb “to sit.” When we played
them “The Hanukkah Song,” they spun solemnly in place.
so we’ve established it’s ecumenical,” Calvin said.“Thank goodness,” I
said, thinking of Reverend Thresher and what he’d say if he found out
they’d responded to a Christmas carol, but when we played them a
Solstice song with the phrase, “the earth turns round again,” they just
stood there and glared.
“Words beginning with S?” I said.
He played them, in rapid succession, “The Snow Lay on the Ground,”
“Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “Suzy Snowflake.” Nothing.
ten forty-five Calvin left to go to his choir rehearsal. “It’s at First
Presbyterian, if you want to meet me there at two,” he said, “and we
can go over to my apartment from there. I want to run an analysis on
the frequency patterns of the phrases they responded to.”
I said, and delivered the Altairi to Dr. Wakamura, who wanted to squirt
them with perfumes from the Crabtree and Evelyn store. I left them
glaring at him and went up to Dr. Morthman’s office. He wasn’t there.
“He went to the mall to collect paint samples,” Dr. Jarvis said.
I called him on his cell phone. “Dr. Morthman, I’ve run some tests,” I said, “and the Altairi are—”
“Not now. I’m waiting for an important call from the ACS,” he said and hung up.
went back to the audio lab and listened to the Cambridge Boys’ Choir,
Barbra Streisand, and Barenaked Ladies Christmas albums, trying to find
songs with variations of “sit” and “spin” in them and no bloodshed. I
also looked up instances of “turn.” They hadn’t responded to “turns” in
the Solstice song, but I wasn’t sure that proved anything. They hadn’t
responded to “sitting” in “All I Want for Christmas” either.
two I went to meet Calvin at Trinity Episcopal. They weren’t done
rehearsing yet, and it didn’t sound like they would be for some time.
Calvin kept starting and stopping the choir and saying, “Basses, you’re
coming in two beats early, and altos, on ‘singing,’ that’s an A flat.
Let’s take it again, from the top of page eight.”
went over the section four more times, with no discernible improvement,
before Calvin said, “Okay, that’s it. I’ll see you all Saturday night.”
“We are never
going to get that entrance right,” several of the choir members
muttered as they gathered up their music, and the balding minister from
the other night, Reverend McIntyre, looked totally discouraged.
“Maybe I shouldn’t sing after all,” he told Calvin.
you should,” Calvin said and put his hand on Reverend McIntyre’s
shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’ll all come together. You’ll see.”
“Do you really believe that?” I asked Calvin after Reverend McIntyre had gone out.
laughed. “I know it’s hard to believe listening to them now. I never
think they’re going to be able to do it, but somehow, no matter how
awful they sound in rehearsal, they always manage to pull it off. It’s
enough to restore your faith in humanity.” He frowned. “I thought you
were going to come over, and we were going to look at frequency
“We are,” I said. “Why?”
pointed behind me. The Altairi were standing there with Reverend
McIntyre. “I found them outside,” he said, smiling. “I was afraid they
might be lost.”
“Oh, dear, they must have followed me.
I’m so sorry,” I said though he didn’t seem particularly intimidated by
them. I said as much.
“I’m not,” he said. “They don’t look nearly as annoyed as my congregation does when they don’t approve of my sermon.”
“I’d better take them back,” I said to Calvin.
as long as they’re here, we might as well take them over to my
apartment and try some more songs on them. We need more data.”
somehow squeezed all six of them into my car and took them over to
Calvin’s apartment, and he analyzed frequency patterns while I played
some more songs for them. It definitely wasn’t the quality of the songs
or the singers they were responding to. They wouldn’t sit down for
Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper” and then did for a hideous falsetto
children’s recording of “Little Miss Muffet” from the 1940s.
It wasn’t the words’ meaning, either. When I played them “Adeste Fideles” in Latin, they sat down when the choir sang, “tibi sit gloria.”
proves they’re taking what they hear literally,” Calvin said when I
took him into the kitchen out of earshot of the Altairi to tell him.
which means we’ve got to make sure they don’t hear any words which have
double meanings,” I said. “We can’t even play them ‘Deck the Halls,’
for fear they might deck someone.”
“And we definitely can’t play them ‘laid in a manger,’ ” he said, grinning.
“It’s not funny,” I said. “At this rate, we aren’t going to be able to play them anything.”
“There must be some songs—”
I said in frustration. “ ‘I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,’ has hearts
on fire, ‘Christmastide’ might bring on a tsunami, and ‘be born in us
today’ sounds like a scene out of Alien.”
know,” he said. “Don’t worry, we’ll find something. Here, I’ll help
you.” He cleared off the kitchen table, brought in the stacks of sheet
music, albums, and CDs, and sat me down across from him. “I’ll find
songs and you check the lyrics.”
We started through them. “No . . . no . . . what about ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’?”
“No,” I said, looking up the lyrics. “It’s got ‘hate,’ ‘dead,’ and ‘despair.’ ”
“Cheery,” he said. There was a pause while we looked through more music. “John Lennon’s ‘Happy Xmas? ’ ”
I shook my head. “ ‘War,’ also ‘fights’ and ‘fear.’ ”
Another pause, and then he said, “ ‘All I want for Christmas is you.’ ”
I looked up at him, startled. “What did you say?”
“ ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You,’ ” he repeated. “Song title. Mariah Carey song.”
“Oh.” I looked up the lyrics. “I think it might be okay. I don’t see any murder or mayhem,” but he was shaking his head.
“On second thought, I don’t think we’d better. Love can be even more dangerous than war.”
looked into the living room where the Altairi stood glaring through the
door at me. “I seriously doubt they’re here to steal Earthwomen.”
“Yeah, but we wouldn’t want to give anybody any ideas.”
“No,” I said. “We definitely wouldn’t want to do that.”
We went back to searching for songs. “How about ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’?” he said, holding up a Patti Page album.
Be Home” passed muster, but the Altairi didn’t respond to it, or to Ed
Ames singing “Ballad of the Christmas Donkey” or Miss Piggy singing
There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or
reason to their responses. The keys weren’t the same, or the notes, or
the voices. They responded to the Andrews Sisters, but not to Randy
Travis, and it wasn’t the voices either, because they responded to
Julie Andrews’ “Awake, Awake, Ye Drowsy Souls.” When we played them her
“Silver Bells,” they didn’t laugh (which didn’t really surprise me) or
bustle, but when the song got to the part about the traffic lights
blinking red and green, all six of them blinked their eyes. Yet when we
played them her, “Rise Up Shepherd, and Follow,” they just sat there.
“Try her ‘Christmas Waltz,’ ” I said, looking at the album cover.
He shook his head. “It’s got love in it, too. You did say you didn’t have a boyfriend, didn’t you?”
“That’s right,” I said, “and I have no intention of dating the Altairi.”
“Good,” he said. “Can you think of any other songs with ‘blink’ in them?”
the time he left to rehearse with the symphony, we didn’t know any more
than when we started. I took the Altairi back to Dr. Wakamura, who
didn’t seem all that happy to see them, tried to find a song with
“blink” in it, to no avail, had lunch, and went back over to Calvin’s
He was already there, working. I started
through the sheet music. “What about ‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice’?” I
said. “It’s got ‘bow’ in it,” and the phone rang.
answered it. “What is it, Belinda?” he said, listened a moment, and
then said, “Turn on the TV,” and handed me the remote.
switched on the television. Marvin the Martian was telling Bugs Bunny
he planned to incinerate the earth. “CNN,” Calvin said. “It’s on forty.”
punched in the channel and then was sorry. Reverend Thresher was
standing in the audio lab in front of a mob of reporters, saying,
“—happy to announce that we have found the answer to the Altairi’s
actions in the mall two days ago. Christmas carols were playing over
the sound system in the mall—”
“Oh, no,” I said.
“I thought the surveillance tapes didn’t have any sound,” Calvin said.
“They don’t. Someone else in the mall must have had a videocam.”
when the Altairi heard those holy songs,” Reverend Thresher was saying,
“they were overcome by the truth of their message, by the power of
God’s blessed word—”
“Oh, no,” Calvin said.
“—and they sank to the ground in repentance for their sins.”
“They did not,” I said. “They sat down.”
the past nine months, scientists have been seeking to discover the
reason why the Altairi came to our planet. They should have turned to
our Blessed Savior instead, for it is in Him that all answers lie. Why
have the Altairi come here? To be saved! They’ve come to be born again,
as we shall demonstrate.” He held up a CD of Christmas carols.
“Oh, no!” we both said. I grabbed for my cell phone.
the wise men of old,” Reverend Thresher was saying, “they have come
seeking Christ, which proves that Christianity is the only true
Dr. Morthman took forever to answer his
phone. When he did, I said, “Dr. Morthman, you mustn’t let the Altairi
listen to any Christmas carols—”
“I can’t talk now,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a press conference,” and hung up.
“Dr. Morthman—” I hit redial.
no time for that,” Calvin, who’d snatched up his keys and my coat,
said. “Come on, we’ll take my car,” and as we racketed downstairs,
“There were a lot of reporters there, and he just said something that
will make every Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan, and non-evangelical
Christian on the planet go ballistic. If we’re lucky, he’ll still be
answering questions when we get there.”
“And if we’re not?”
“The Altairi will be out seizing troubled minds, and we’ll have a holy war on our hands.”
We almost made it. There were, as Calvin had predicted, a lot
of questions, particularly after Reverend Thresher stated that the
Altairi agreed with him on abortion, gay marriage, and the necessity of
electing Republicans to all political offices.
clamoring reporters clogging the steps, the door, and the hall made it
nearly impossible to get through, and by the time we reached the audio
lab, Reverend Thresher was pointing proudly to the Altairi kneeling on
the other side of the one-way mirror and telling the reporters, “As you
can see, their hearing the Christmas message has made them kneel in
“Oh, no, they must be listening to ‘O Holy Night,’ ” I said, “or ‘As With Gladness Men of Old,’ ”
“What did you play them?” Calvin demanded. He pointed at the kneeling Altairi.
One True Way Maxichurch Christmas CD,” Reverend Thresher said proudly,
holding up the case, which the reporters obligingly snapped, filmed,
and downloaded to their iPods. “Christmas Carols for True Christians.”
“No, no, what song?”
the individual carols hold a special significance for them?” the
reporters were shouting, and “What carol were they listening to in the
mall?” and “Have they been baptized, Reverend Thresher?” while I tried
to tell Dr. Morthman, “You’ve got to turn the music off.”
Dr. Morthman said, yelling to be heard over the reporters. “Just when
we’re finally making progress communicating with the Altairi?”
“You have to tell us which songs you’ve played!” Calvin shouted.
“Who are you?” Reverend Thresher demanded.
“He’s with me,” I said, and to Dr. Morthman, “You have to turn it off right now. Some of the carols are dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” he bellowed, and the reporters’ attention swiveled to us.
“What do you mean, dangerous?” they asked.
“I mean dangerous,” Calvin said. “The Altairi aren’t repenting of anything. They’re—”
dare you accuse the Altairi of not being born again?” Reverend Thresher
said. “I saw them respond to the hymnwriter’s inspiring words with my
own eyes, saw them fall on their knees—”
“They responded to ‘Silver Bells,’ too,” I said, “and to ‘The Hanukkah Song.’ ”
‘Hanukkah Song’?” the reporters said and began pelting us with
questions again. “Does that mean they’re Jewish?” “Orthodox or
Reformed?” “What’s their response to Hindu chants?” “What about the
Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Do they respond to that?”
doesn’t have anything to do with religion,” Calvin said. “The Altairi
are responding to the literal meaning of certain words in the songs.
Some of the words they’re listening to right now could be dangerous—”
“Blasphemy!” Reverend Thresher bellowed. “How could the blessed Christmas message be dangerous?”
‘Christmas Day is Come,’ tells them to slay young children,” I said,
“and the lyrics of other carols have blood and war and stars raining
fire. That’s why you’ve got to turn off the music right now.”
“Too late,” Calvin said and pointed through the one-way mirror.
Altairi weren’t there. “Where are they?” the reporters began shouting.
“Where did they go?” and Reverend Thresher and Dr. Morthman both turned
to me and demanded to know what I’d done with them.
“Leave her alone. She doesn’t know where they are any more than you do,” Calvin said in his choir director voice.
effect on the room was the same as it had been on his seventh graders.
Dr. Morthman let go of me, and the reporters shut up. “Now, what song
were you playing?” Calvin said to Reverend Thresher.
‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,’ ” Reverend Thresher said, “but it’s one
of the oldest and most beloved Christmas carols. It’s ridiculous to
think hearing it could endanger anyone—’ ”
Rest Ye’ why they left?” the reporters were shouting, and “What are the
words? Is there any war in it? Or children-slaying?”
‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen,’ ” I muttered under my breath, trying to
remember the lyrics, “ ‘let nothing you dismay. . . .’ ”
“Where did they go?” the reporters clamored.
‘. . . oh, tidings of comfort and joy,’ ” I murmured. I glanced over at
Calvin. He was doing the same thing I was. “ ‘. . . to save us all . .
. when we are gone . . .’ ”
“Where do you think they’ve gone?” a reporter called out.
Calvin looked at me. “Astray,” he said grimly.
Altairi weren’t in the other labs, in any of the other buildings on
campus, or in their ship. Or at least no one had seen the ramp to it
come down and them go inside. No one had seen them crossing the campus
either, or on the surrounding streets.
“I hold you
entirely responsible for this, Miss Yates,” Dr. Morthman said. “Send
out an APB,” he told the police. “And put out a Megan Alert.”
“That’s for when a child’s been kidnapped,” I said. “The Altairi haven’t—”
“We don’t know that,” he snapped. He turned back to the police officer. “And call the FBI.”
police officer turned to Calvin. “Dr. Morthman said you said the aliens
were responding to the words, ‘gone astray.’ Were there any other words
in the song that are dangerous?”
“Sa—” I began.
Calvin said, and while Dr. Morthman was telling the officer to call
Homeland Security and tell them to declare a Code Red, he hustled me
down the sidewalk and behind the Altairi’s ship.
“Why did you tell them that?” I demanded. “What about ‘scorn’? What about ‘Satan’s power’?”
he whispered. “He’s already calling Homeland Security. We don’t want
him to call out the Air Force. And the nukes,” he said. “And there’s no
time to explain things to them. We’ve got to find the Altairi.”
“Do you have any idea where they could have gone?”
“No. At least their ship’s still here,” he said, looking over at it.
wasn’t sure that meant anything, considering the Altairi had been able
to get out of a lab with a locked door. I said as much, and Calvin
agreed. “ ‘Gone astray’ may not even be what they were responding to.
They may be off looking for a manger or shepherds. And there are
different versions. Christmas Carols for True Christians may have used an older one.”
which case we need to go back to the lab and find out exactly what it
was they heard,” I said, my heart sinking. Dr. Morthman was likely to
have me arrested.
Apparently Calvin had reached the
same conclusion because he said, “We can’t go back in there. It’s too
risky, and we’ve got to find the Altairi before Reverend Thresher does.
There’s no telling what he’ll play them next.”
they did go astray, then they may still be in the area. You go get your
car and check the streets north of the campus, and I’ll do south. Do
you have your cell phone?”
“Yes, but I don’t have a car. Mine’s at your apartment. We came over in yours, remember?”
“What about the van you use to take the Altairi places in?”
“But won’t that be awfully noticeable?”
looking for six alienson foot, not in a van,” he said, “and besides, if
you find them, you’ll need something to put them in.”
“You’re right,” I said and took off for the faculty parking lot, hoping Dr. Morthman hadn’t had the same idea.
hadn’t. The parking lot was deserted. I slid the van’s back door open,
half-hoping this was the Altairi’s idea of astray, but they weren’t
inside, or on any of the streets for an area two miles north of DU. I
drove up University Boulevard and then slowly up and down the side
streets, terrified I’d find them squished on the pavement.
was starting to get dark. I called Calvin. “No sign of them,” I told
him. “Maybe they went back to the mall. I’m going to go over there and—”
don’t do that,” he said. “Dr. Morthman and the FBI are there. I’m
watching it on CNN. They’re searching Victoria’s Secret. Besides, the
Altairi aren’t there.”
“How do you know?”
“Because they’re here at my apartment.”
“They are?” I said, weak with relief. “Where did you find them?”
He didn’t answer me. “Don’t take any major streets on your way over here,” he said. “And park in the alley.”
“Why? What have they done?” I asked, but he’d already hung up.
Altairi were standing in the middle of Calvin’s living room when I got
there. “I came back here to check on alternate lyrics for ‘God Rest Ye’
and found them waiting for me,” Calvin explained. “Did you park in the
“Yes, at the other end of the block. What have they done?” I repeated, almost afraid to ask.
At least nothing that’s been on CNN,” he said, gesturing at the TV,
which was showing the police searching the candle store. He had the
sound turned down, but across the bottom of the screen was the logo,
“Then why all the secrecy?”
we can’t afford to let them find the Altairi till we’ve figured out why
they’re doing what they’re doing. Next time it might not be as harmless
as going astray. And we can’t go to your apartment. Morthman knows
where you live. We’re going to have to hole up here. Did you tell
anybody you were working with me?”
I tried to think.
I’d attempted to tell Dr. Morthman about Calvin when I got back from
the mall, but I hadn’t gotten far enough to tell him Calvin’s name, and
when Reverend Thresher had demanded, “Who are you?” all I’d said was,
“He’s with me.”
“I didn’t tell anybody your name,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “And I’m pretty sure nobody saw the Altairi coming here.”
“But how can you be sure? Your neighbors—”
the Altairi were waiting for me inside,” he said. “Right where they are
now. So either they can pick locks, walk through walls, or teleport. My
money’s on teleportation. And it’s obvious the commission doesn’t have
any idea where they are,” he said, pointing at the TV, where a
mugshot-like photo of the Altairi was displayed, with “Have you seen
these aliens?” and a phone number to call across their midsections.
“And luckily, I went to the grocery store and stocked up the other day
so I wouldn’t have to go shopping in between all my concerts.”
concerts! And the All-City Sing! I forgot all about them,” I said,
stricken with guilt. “Weren’t you supposed to have a rehearsal tonight?”
canceled it,” he said, “and I can cancel the one tomorrow morning if I
have to. The Sing’s not till tomorrow night. We’ve got plenty of time
to figure this out.”
If they don’t find us first, I
thought, looking at the TV, where they were searching the food court.
Once they realized they couldn’t find the Altairi anywhere, they’d
notice I was missing, too, and start looking for us. And the reporters
today, unlike Leo, had all been videotaping. If they put Calvin’s
picture on TV with a number to call, one of his church choir members or
his seventh graders would be certain to call in and identify him.
meant we’d better work fast. I picked up the list of songs and actions
we’d compiled. “Where do you want to start?” I asked Calvin, who was
going through a stack of LPs.
“Not with ‘Frosty the Snowman,’ ” he said. “I don’t think I can stand any more chasing here and there.”
“How about, ‘I Wonder as I Wander’?”
“Very funny,” he said. “Since we know they respond to ‘kneeling,’ why don’t we start with that?”
We played them “fall on your knees” and “come adore on bended knee” and
“whose forms are bending low,” some of which they responded to and some
of which they didn’t, for no reason we could see.
“ ‘The First Noel’ has ‘full reverently upon their knee’ in it,” I said, and Calvin started toward the bedroom to look for it.
He stopped as he passed in front of the TV. “I think you’d better come look at this,” he said and turned it up.
Altairi were not at the mall, as we had hoped,” Dr. Morthman was
saying, “and it has just come to our attention that a member of our
commission is also missing, Margaret Yates.” Video of the scene at the
lab came on behind Dr. Morthman and the reporter, with me shouting for
him to shut the music off. Any second a picture of Calvin would appear,
demanding to know which carol they were playing.
grabbed up my phone and called Dr. Morthman, hoping against hope they
couldn’t trace cell phone calls and that he’d answer even though he was
He did, and the camera blessedly zoomed in on
him so only a tiny piece of the video remained visible. “Where are you
calling from?” he demanded. “Did you find the Altairi?”
“No,” I said, “but I think I have an idea where they might be.”
“Where?” Dr. Morthman said.
“I don’t think they’ve gone astray. I think they may be responding to one of the other words in the song. ‘Rest’ or possibly—”
knew it,” Reverend Thresher said, shoving in front of Dr. Morthman.
“They were responding to the words, ‘Remember Christ our Savior was
born on Christmas Day.’ They’ve gone to church. They’re at the One True
Way right this minute.”
It wasn’t what I had in mind,
but at least a photo of the One True Way Maxichurch was better than one
of Calvin. “That should give us at least two hours. His church is way
down in Colorado Springs,” I said, turning the TV back down. I went
back to playing songs to the Altairi and logging their responses and
non-responses, but half an hour later when Calvin went in the bedroom
to look for a Louis Armstrong CD, he stopped in front of the TV again
“What happened?” I said, dumping the pile
of sheet music on my lap on the couch beside me and sidling past the
Altairi to get to him. “Didn’t they take the bait?”
“Oh, they took it, all right,” he said and turned up the TV.
“We believe the Altairi are in Bethlehem,” Dr. Morthman was saying. He was standing in front of a departures board at DIA.
“Bethlehem?” I said.
“It’s mentioned in the lyrics twice,” Calvin said. “At least if they’re off in Israel it gives us more time.”
also gives us an international incident,” I said. “In the Middle East,
no less. I’ve got to call Dr. Morthman,” but he must have turned his
cell phone off, and I couldn’t get through to the lab.
“You could call Reverend Thresher,” Calvin said, pointing to the TV screen.
Thresher was surrounded by reporters as he got into his Lexus. “I’m on
my way to the Altairi right now, and tonight we will hold a Praise
Worship Service, and you’ll be able to hear their Christian witness and
the Christmas carols that first brought them to the Lord—”
switched the TV off. “It’s a sixteen hour flight to Bethlehem,” he said
encouragingly. “It surely won’t take us that long to figure this out.”
phone rang. Calvin shot me a glance and then picked it up. “Hello, Mr.
Steinberg,” he said. “Didn’t you get my message? I canceled tonight’s
rehearsal.” He listened awhile. “If you’re worried about your entrance
on page twelve, we’ll run over it before the Sing.” He listened some
more. “It’ll all come together. It always does.”
hoped that would be true of our solving the puzzle of the Altairi. If
it wasn’t, we’d be charged with kidnapping. Or starting a religious
war. But both were better than letting Reverend Thresher play them
“slowly dying” and “thorns infest the ground.” Which meant we’d better
figure out what the Altairi were responding to, and fast. We played
them Dolly Parton and Manhattan Transfer and the Barbershop Choir of
Toledo and Dean Martin.
Which was a bad idea. I’d had
almost no sleep the last two days, and I found myself nodding off after
the first few bars. I sat up straight and tried to concentrate on the
Altairi, but it was no use. The next thing I knew, my head was on
Calvin’s shoulder, and he was saying, “Meg? Meg? Do the Altairi sleep?”
“Sleep?” I said, sitting up and rubbing my eyes. “I’m sorry, I must have dozed off. What time is it?”
“A little after four.”
“In the morning?”
“Yes. Do the Altairi sleep?”
“Yes, at least we think so. Their brain patterns alter, and they don’t respond to stimuli, but then again, they never respond.”
“Are there visible signs that they’re alseep? Do they close their eyes or lie down?”
“No, they sort of droop over, like flowers that haven’t been watered. And their glares diminish a little. Why?”
“I have something I want to try. Go back to sleep.”
that’s okay,” I said, suppressing a yawn. “If anybody needs to sleep,
it’s you. I’ve kept you up the last two nights, and you’ve got to
direct your Sing thing. I’ll take over and you go—”
He shook his head. “I’m fine. I told you, I never get any sleep this time of year.”
“So what’s this idea you want to try?”
“I want to play them the first verse of ‘Silent Night.’ ”
“ ‘Sleep in heavenly peace,’ ” I said.
“Right, and no other action verbs, and I’ve got at least fifty versions of it. Johnny Cash, Kate Smith, Britney Spears—”
we have time to play them fifty different versions?” I asked, looking
over at the TV. A split screen showed a map of Israel and the outside
of the One True Way Maxichurch. When I turned the volume up, a
reporter’s voice said, “Inside, thousands of members are awaiting the
appearance of the Altairi, whom Reverend Thresher expects at any
minute. A twenty-four hour High-Powered Prayer Vigil—”
I turned it back down. “I guess we do. You were saying?”
‘Silent Night’ is a song everybody—Gene Autry, Madonna, Burl Ives—has
recorded. Different voices, different accompaniments, different keys.
We can see which versions they respond to—”
“And which ones they don’t,” I said, “and that may give us a clue to what they’re responding to.”
“Exactly,” he said, opening a CD case. He stuck it in the player and hit Track 4. “Here goes.”
voice of Elvis Presley singing, “Silent night, holy night,” filled the
room. Calvin came back over to the couch and sat down next to me. When
Elvis got to “tender and mild,” we both leaned forward expectantly,
watching the Altairi. “Sleep in heavenly peace,” Elvis crooned, but the
Altairi were still stiffly upright. They remained that way through the
repeated “sleep in heavenly peace.” And through Alvin the Chipmunks’
solo of it. And Celine Dion’s.
“Their glares don’t appear to be diminishing,” Calvin said. “If anything, they seem to be getting worse.”
They were. “You’d better play them Judy Garland,” I said.
He did, and Dolly Parton and Harry Belafonte. “What if they don’t respond to any of them?” I asked.
we try something else. I’ve also got twenty-six versions of ‘Grandma
Got Run Over by a Reindeer.’ ” He grinned at me. “I’m kidding. I do,
however, have nine different versions of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside.’ ”
“For use on second sopranos?”
“No,” he said. “Shh, I love this version. Nat King Cole.”
shh-ed and listened, wondering how the Altairi could resist falling
asleep. Nat King Cole’s voice was even more relaxing than Dean
Martin’s. I leaned back against the couch. “ ‘All is calm, all . . .’ ”
must have fallen asleep again because the next thing I knew the music
had stopped, and it was daylight outside. I looked at my watch. It said
two pm. The Altairi were standing in the exact same spot they’d been in
before, glaring, and Calvin was sitting hunched forward on a kitchen
chair, his chin in his hand, watching them and looking worried.
something happen?” I glanced over at the TV. Reverend Thresher was
talking. The logo read, “Thresher Launches Galaxywide Christian
Crusade.” At least it didn’t say, “Air Strikes in Middle East.”
Calvin was slowly shaking his head.
“Wasn’t there any response to ‘Silent Night’?” I asked.
“No, there was,” he said. “You responded to the version by Nat King Cole.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry. I meant the Altairi. They didn’t respond to any of the ‘Silent Nights’?”
“No, they responded,” he said, “but just to one version.”
that’s good, isn’t it?” I asked. “Now we can analyze what it was that
was different about it that they were responding to. Which version was
Instead of answering, he walked over to the CD
player and hit play. A loud chorus of nasal female voices began belting
out, “Silent night, holy night,” shouting to be heard over a cacophony
of clinks and clacks. “What is that?” I asked.
“The Broadway chorus of the musical 42nd Street singing and tap-dancing to ‘Silent Night.’ They recorded it for a special Broadway Christmas charity project.”
looked over at the Altairi, thinking maybe Calvin was wrong and they
hadn’t really fallen asleep, but in spite of the din, they had sagged
limply over, their heads nearly touching the ground, looking almost
peaceful. Their glares had faded from full-bore Aunt Judith to only
I listened to the 42nd Street
chorines tapping and belting out “Silent Night” at the top of their
lungs some more. “It is kind of appealing,” I said, “especially the
part where they shout out ‘Mother and child! ’ ”
know,” he said. “I’d like it played at our wedding. And obviously the
Altairi share our good taste. But aside from that, I’m not sure what it tells us.”
“That the Altairi like show tunes?” I suggested.
forbid. Think what Reverend Thresher would do with that,” he said.
“Besides, they didn’t respond to ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.’ ”
“No, but they did to that song from ‘Mame.’ ”
“And to the one from 1776,” he said, “but not to The Music Man or Rent,” he said frustratedly. “Which puts us right back where we started. I have no clue what they’re responding to!”
“I know,” I said. “I’m so sorry. I should never have gotten you involved in this. You have your ACHES thing to direct.”
doesn’t start till seven,” he said, rummaging through a stack of LPs,
“which means we’ve got another four hours to work. If we could just
find another ‘Silent Night’ they’ll respond to, we might be able to
figure out what in God’s name they’re doing. What the hell happened to
that Star Wars Christmas album?”
said, “this is ridiculous.” I took the albums out of his hands. “You’re
exhausted, and you’ve got a big job to do. You can’t direct all those
people on no sleep. This can wait.”
“People think better after a nap,” I said firmly. “You’ll wake up, and the solution will be perfectly obvious.”
“And if it isn’t?”
“Then you’ll go direct your choir, and—”
“Choirs,” he said thoughtfully.
All-City Sing or Aches and Pains or whatever you call it, and I’ll stay
here and play the Altairi some more ‘Silent Nights’ till you get back
“ ‘Sit Down, John’ was sung by the chorus,” he
said, looking past me at the drooping Altairi. “And so was ‘While
Shepherds Watched.’ And the 42nd Street ‘Silent Night’ was the
only one that wasn’t a solo.” He grabbed my shoulders. “They’re all
choruses. That’s why they didn’t respond to Julie Andrews singing ‘Rise
Up, Shepherd, and Follow,’ or to Stubby Kaye singing ‘Sit Down, You’re
Rocking the Boat.’ They only respond to groups of voices.”
I shook my head. “You forgot ‘Awake, Awake, Ye Drowsy Souls.’ ”
he said, his face falling, “you’re right. Wait!” He lunged for the
Julie Andrews CD and stuck it in the recorder. “I think Julie Andrews
sings the verse and then a chorus comes in. Listen.”
He was right. The chorus had sung “ ‘Awake, awake.’ ”
“Who sang the ‘Joy to the World’ you played them on the CD from the mall?” Calvin asked.
“Just Julie Andrews,” I said. “And Brenda Lee sang ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.’ ”
Johnny Mathis sang ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory,’ ” he said
happily. “But the Hanukkah song, which they did respond to, was sung by
the . . .” he read it off the CD case, “the Shalom Singers. That’s got
to be it.” He began looking through the LPs again.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“The Mormon Tabernacle Choir,” he said. “They’ve got to have recorded ‘Silent Night.’ We’ll play it for the Altairi, and if they fall asleep, we’ll know we’re on the right track—”
“But they’re already asleep,” I pointed out, gesturing to where they stood looking like a week-old flower arrangement. “How—?”
was already digging again. He brought up a Cambridge Boys’ Choir album,
pulled the LP out, and read the label, muttering, “I know it’s on here
. . . here it is.” He put it on, and a chorus of sweet boys’ voices
sang, “ ‘Christians Awake, Salute the Happy Morn.’ ”
Altairi straightened immediately and glared at us. “You were right,” I
said softly, but he wasn’t listening. He had the LP off the turntable
and was reading the label again, muttering, “Come on, you have to have
done ‘Silent Night.’ Everyone does ‘Silent Night.’ ” He flipped the LP
over, said, “I knew it,” popped it back on the turntable, and
dropped the needle expertly. “ ‘. . . and mild,’ ” the boys’ angelic
voices sang, “ ‘sleep . . .’ ”
The Altairi drooped over before the word was even out. “That’s definitely it!” I said. “That’s the common denominator.”
shook his head. “We need more data. It could just be a coincidence. We
need to find a choral version of ‘Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow.’ And
‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.’ Where did you put Guys and Dolls?”
“But that was a solo.”
“The first part, the part we played them was a solo. Later on all the gamblers come in. We should have played them the whole song.”
couldn’t, remember?” I said, handing it to him. “Remember the parts
about dragging you under and drowning, not to mention gambling and
“Oh, right,” he said. He put headphones on,
listened, and then unplugged them. “ ‘Sit Down . . .’ ” a chorus of
men’s voices sang lustily, and the Altairi sat down.
played choir versions of “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front
Teeth” and “Rise Up, Shepherds, and Follow.” The Altairi sat down and
stood up. “You’re right,” he said after the Altairi knelt to the
Platters singing “The First Noel.” “It’s the common denominator, all
right. But why?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Maybe
they can’t understand things said to them by fewer voices than a choir.
That would explain why there are six of them. Maybe each one only hears
certain frequencies, which singly are meaningless, but with six of
He shook his head. “You’re forgetting the
Andrews Sisters. And Barenaked Ladies. And even if it is the choir
aspect they’re responding to, it still doesn’t tell us what they’re
“But now we know how to get them to tell us,” I said, grabbing up The Holly Jolly Book of Christmas Songs. “Can you find a choir version of ‘Adeste Fideles’ in English?”
“I think so,” he said. “Why?”
“Because it’s got ‘we greet thee’ in it,” I said, running my fingers down the lyrics of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.”
there’s ‘Watchman, Tell Us of the Night,’ ” he said. “And ‘great glad
tidings tell.’ They’re bound to respond to one of them.”
they didn’t. Peter, Paul, and Mary ordered the Altairi to “go tell” (we
blanked out the “on the mountain part”), but either the Altairi didn’t
like folk music, or the Andrews Sisters had been a fluke.
we had jumped to conclusions. When we tried the same song again, this
time by the Boston Commons Choir, there was still no response. And none
to choral versions of “Deck the Halls” (“while I tell”) or “Jolly Old
St. Nicholas” (“don’t you tell a single soul” minus “don’t” and “a
single soul”). Or to “The Friendly Beasts,” even though all six verses
had “tell” in them.
Calvin thought the tense might be
the problem and played parts of “Little St. Nick” (“tale” and “told”)
and “The Carol of the Bells” (“telling”), but to no avail. “Maybe the
word’s the problem,” I said. “Maybe they just don’t know the word
‘tell,’ ” but they didn’t respond to “say” or to “saying” and “said,”
to “messages” or to “proclaim.”
“We must have been
wrong about the choir thing,” Calvin said, but that wasn’t it either.
While he was in the bedroom putting his tux on for the Sing, I played
them snatches of “Angel’s We Have Heard on High” and “Up on the
Rooftop” from the Barenaked Ladies CD, and they knelt and jumped right
“Maybe they think Earth’s a gym and this is an
exercise class,” Calvin said, coming in as they were leaping to the St.
Paul’s Cathedral Choir singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” “I don’t
suppose the word ‘calling’ had any effect on them.”
I said, tying his bow tie, “and ‘I’m offering this simple phrase’
didn’t either. Has it occurred to you that the music might not be
having any effect at all, and they just happen to be sitting and
leaping and kneeling at the same time as the words are being sung?”
he said. “There’s a connection. If there wasn’t, they wouldn’t look so
irritated that we haven’t been able to figure it out yet.”
He was right. Their glares had, if anything, intensified, and their very posture radiated disapproval.
“We need more data, that’s all,” he said, going to get his black shoes. “As soon as I get back, we’ll—” He stopped.
“What is it?”
better look at this,” he said, pointing at the TV. The screen was
showing a photo of the ship. All the lights were on, and exhaust was
coming out of assorted side vents. Calvin grabbed the remote and turned
“It is now believed that the Altairi have
returned to their ship and are preparing to depart,” the newscaster
said. I glanced over at the Altairi. They were still standing there.
“Analysis of the ignition cycle indicates that takeoff will be in less
than six hours.”
“What do we do now?” I asked Calvin.
“We figure this out. You heard them. We’ve got six hours till blast-off.”
“But the Sing—”
He handed me my coat. “We know it’s got something
to do with choirs, and I’ve got every kind you could want. We’ll take
the Altairi to the convention center and hope we think of something on
We didn’t think of
anything on the way. “Maybe I should take them back to their ship,” I
said, pulling into the parking lot. “What if I cause them to get left
“They are not E.T.,” he said.
parked at the service entrance, got out, and started to slide the back
door of the van open. “No, leave them there,” Calvin said. “We’ve got
to find a place to put them before we take them in. Lock the car.”
did, even though I doubted if it would do any good, and followed Calvin
through a side door marked “Choirs Only” and through a maze of
corridors lined with rooms marked, “St. Peter’s Boys Choir,” “Red Hat
Glee Club,” “Denver Gay Men’s Chorus,” “Sweet Adelines Show Chorus,”
“Mile High Jazz Singers.” There was a hubbub in the front of the
building, and when we crossed the main corridor, we could see people in
gold and green and black robes milling around talking.
opened several doors one after the other, ducked inside the rooms,
shutting the door after him, and then re-emerged, shaking his head. “We
can’t let the Altairi hear the Messiah, and you can still hear the noise from the auditorium,” he said. “We need someplace soundproof.”
farther away,” I said, leading the way down the corridor and turning
down a side hall. And running smack into his seventh graders coming out
of one of the meeting rooms. Mrs. Carlson was videotaping them, and
another mother was attempting to line them up to go in, but as soon as
they saw Calvin, they clustered around him saying, “Mr. Ledbetter,
where have you been? We thought you weren’t coming,” and “Mr.
Ledbetter, Mrs. Carlson says we have to turn our cell phones off, but
can’t we just have them on vibrate?” and “Mr. Ledbetter, Shelby and I
were supposed to go in together, but she says she wants to be partners
Calvin ignored them. “Kaneesha, could you hear any of the groups rehearsing when you were in getting dressed?”
“Why?” Belinda asked. “Did we miss the call to go in?”
“Could you, Kaneesha?” he persisted.
“A little bit,” she said.
“That won’t work then,” he said to me. “I’ll go check the room at the end. Wait here.” He sprinted along the hall.
“You were at the mall that day,” Belinda said accusingly to me. “Are you and Mr. Ledbetter going out?”
We may all be going out together—with a bang—if we don’t figure out what the Altairi are doing, I thought. “No,” I said.
“Are you hooking up?” Chelsea asked.
“Chelsea!” Mrs. Carlson said, horrified.
“Well, are you?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be lining up?” I asked.
Calvin came back at a dead run. “It should work,” he said to me. “It seems fairly soundproof.”
“Why does it have to be soundproof?” Chelsea asked.
“I bet it’s so nobody can hear them making out,” Belinda said, and Chelsea began making smooching noises.
to go in, ladies,” he said in his director’s voice, “line up,” and he
really was amazing. They immediately formed pairs and began making a
“Wait till everybody’s gone into the
auditorium,” he said, pulling me aside, “and then go get them and bring
them in. I’ll do a few minutes’ intro of the orchestra and the
organizing committee so the Altairi won’t hear any songs while you’re
getting them to the room. There’s a table you can use to barricade the
door so nobody can get in.”
“And what if the Altairi try to leave?” I asked. “A barricade won’t stop them, you know.”
me on my cell phone, and I’ll tell the audience there’s a fire drill or
something. Okay? I’ll make this as short as I can.” He grinned. “No
‘Twelve Days of Christmas.’ Don’t worry, Meg. We’ll figure this out.”
“I told you she was his girlfriend.”
“Is she, Mr. Ledbetter?”
go, ladies,” he said and led them down the hall and into the
auditorium. Just as the auditorium doors shut on the last stragglers,
my cell phone rang. It was Dr. Morthman, calling to say, “You can stop
looking. The Altairi are in their ship.”
“How do you know? Have you seen them?” I asked, thinking, I knew I shouldn’t have left them in the car.
but the ship’s begun the ignition process, and it’s going faster than
NASA previously estimated. They’re now saying it’s no more than four
hours to takeoff. Where are you?”
“On my way back,” I
said, trying not to sound like I was running out to the parking lot and
unlocking the van, which, thank goodness, was at least still there and
“Well, hurry it up,” Dr. Morthman snapped.
“The press is here. You’re going to have to explain to them exactly how
you let the Altairi get away.” I pulled open the van’s door. The
Altairi weren’t inside. Oh, no. “I blame this entire debacle on you,”
Dr. Morthman said. “If there are international repercussions—”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” I said, hung up, and turned to run around to the driver’s side.
collided with the Altairi, who had apparently been standing behind me
the entire time. “Don’t scare me like that,” I said. “Now come on,” and
led them rapidly into the convention center, past the shut doors of the
auditorium, where I could hear talking but not singing, thank goodness,
and along the long hall to the room Calvin had indicated.
was empty except for the table Calvin had mentioned. I herded the
Altairi inside and then tipped the table on its side, pushed it in
front of the door, wedging it under the doorknob, and then leaned my
ear against the door to see if I could hear any sound from the
auditorium, but Calvin had been right. I couldn’t hear anything, and
they should have started by now.
And now what? With
takeoff only four hours away, I needed to take advantage of every
second, but there was nothing in the room I could use—no piano or CD
player or LPs. We should have used his seventh graders’ dressing room,
I thought. They’d at least have had ipods or something.
even if I played the Altairi hundreds of Christmas carols being sung by
a choir, and they responded to them all—bowing, decking halls, dashing
through snow in a one-horse open sleigh, following yonder star—I’d
still be no closer to figuring out why they were here or why they’d
decided to leave. Or why they’d taken the very loud tap-dancing chorus
of 42nd Street singing “ ‘Sleep in heavenly peace’ ” as a
direct order. If they even know what the word “sleep”—or “seated” or
“spin” or “blink”—meant.
Calvin had surmised they
could only hear words sung to them with more than one voice, but that
couldn’t be it. Someone hearing a word for the first time would have no
idea what it meant, and they’d never heard “all seated on the ground”
till that day in the mall. They had to have heard the word before to
have known what it meant, and they’d only have heard it spoken. Which
meant they could hear spoken words as well as sung ones.
could have read the words, I thought, remembering the Rosetta Stone and
the dictionaries Dr. Short had given them. But even if they’d somehow
taught themselves to read English, they wouldn’t know how it was
pronounced. They wouldn’t have recognized it when they heard it spoken.
The only way they could do that was by hearing the spoken word. Which
meant they’d been listening to and understanding every word we’d said
for the past nine months. Including Calvin’s and my conversations about
them slaying babies and destroying the planet. No wonder they were
But if they understood us, then that meant
one of two things—they were either unwilling to talk to us or were
incapable of speaking. Had their sitting down and their other responses
been an attempt at sign language?
No, that couldn’t be
it either. They could have responded just as easily to a spoken “sit”
and done it months earlier. And if they were trying to communicate,
wouldn’t they have given Calvin and me some hint we were on the
right—or the wrong—track instead of just standing there with that
we-are-not-amused glare? And I didn’t believe for a moment those
expressions were an accident of nature. I knew disapproval when I saw
it. I’d watched Aunt Judith too many years not to—
Judith. I took my cell phone out of my pocket and called my sister
Tracy. “Tell me everything you can remember about Aunt Judith,” I said
when she answered.
“Has something happened to her?” she said, sounding alarmed. “When I talked to her last week she—”
“Last week?” I said. “You mean Aunt Judith’s still alive?”
“Well, she was last week when we had lunch.”
“Lunch? With Aunt Judith? Are we talking about the same person? Dad’s Aunt Judith? The Gorgon?”
“Yes, only she’s not a Gorgon. She’s actually very nice when you get to know her.”
“Aunt Judith,” I said, “the one who always glared disapprovingly at everybody?”
“Yes, only she hasn’t glared at me in years. As I say, when you get to know her—”
“And exactly how did you do that?”
“I thanked her for my birthday present.”
“And—?” I said. “That can’t have been all. Mom always made both of us thank her nicely for our presents.”
know, but they weren’t proper thank yous. ‘A prompt handwritten note
expressing gratitude is the only proper form of thanks,’ ” Tracy said,
obviously quoting. “I was in high school, and we had to write a
thank-you letter to someone for class. She’d just sent me my birthday
card with the dollar in it, so I wrote her, and the next day she called
and gave me this long lecture about the importance of good manners and
how shocking it was that no one followed the most basic rules of
etiquette any more and how she was delighted to see that at least one
young person knew how to behave, and then she asked me if I’d like to
go see Les Miz with her, and I bought a copy of Emily Post, and
we’ve gotten along great ever since. She sent Evan and me a sterling
silver fish slice when we got married.”
“For which you
sent her a hand-written thank-you note,” I said absently. Aunt Judith
had been glaring because we were boorish and unmannered. Was that why
the Altairi looked so disapproving, because they were waiting for the
equivalent of a hand-written thank-you note from us?
that was the case, we were doomed. Rules of etiquette are notoriously
illogical and culture-specific, and there was no intergalactic Emily
Post for me to consult. And I had, oh, God, less than two hours till
“Tell me exactly what she said that day she called you,” I said, unwilling to give up the idea that she was somehow the key.
“It was eight years ago—”
“I know. Try to remember.”
. . . there was a lot of stuff about gloves and how I shouldn’t wear
white shoes after Labor Day and how I shouldn’t cross my legs.
‘Well-bred young ladies sit with their ankles crossed.’ ”
the Altairi’s sitting down in the mall been an etiquette lesson in the
proper way to sit? It seemed unlikely, but so did Aunt Judith’s refusal
to speak to people because of the color of their shoes on certain
“. . . and she said if I got married,
I needed to send out engraved invitations,” Tracy said. “Which I did. I
think that’s why she gave us the fish slice.”
“I don’t care about the fish slice. What did she say about your thank-you note?”
said, ‘Well, it’s about time, Tracy. I’d nearly given up hope of anyone
in your family showing any signs of civilized behavior.’ ”
behavior. That was it. The Altairi, like Aunt Judith sitting in our
living room glaring, had been waiting for a sign that we were
civilized. And singing—correction, group singing—was that sign.
But was it an arbitrary rule of etiquette, like white shoes and
engraved invitations, or was it a symbol of something else?
thought of Calvin telling his chattering seventh graders to line up,
and the milling gigling, chaotic muddle of girls coming together in an
organized, beautifully behaved, civilized line.
together. That was the civilized behavior the Altairi had been waiting
for a sign of. And they’d seen precious little of it in the nine months
they’d been here: the disorganized commission with members quitting and
those who were left not listening to anyone; that awful rehearsal where
the basses couldn’t get the entrance right to save them; the harried
shoppers in the mall, dragging their screaming children after them. The
piped-in choir singing “While Shepherds Watched” might have been the
first indication they’d seen—correction, heard—that we were capable of
getting along with each other at all.
No wonder they’d
sat down right there in the middle of the mall. They must have thought,
like Aunt Judith, “Well, it’s about time!” But then why hadn’t they
done the equivalent of calling and asking us to go see Les Miz?
Maybe they hadn’t been sure that what they’d seen—correction, heard—was what they thought it was. They’d never seen
people sing, except for Calvin and those pathetic basses. They’d seen
no signs we were capable of singing beautifully in harmony.
“While Shepherds Watched” had convinced them it might be possible,
which was why they’d followed us around and why they’d sat and slept
and gone astray whenever they heard more than one voice, hoping we’d
get the hint, waiting for further proof.
In which case
we should be in the auditorium, listening to the Sing, instead of in
this soundproof room. Especially since the fact that their ship was
getting ready to take off indicated they’d given up and decided they
were mistaken after all. “Come on,” I said to the Altairi and stood up.
“I need to show you something.” I shoved the table away from the door,
and opened it.
On Calvin. “Oh, good, you’re here,” I said. “I—why aren’t you in there directing?”
announced an intermission so I could tell you something. I think I’ve
got it, the thing the Altairi have been responding to,” he said,
grabbing me by the arms, “the reason they reacted to Christmas songs. I
thought of it while I was directing ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open
Fire.’ What do nearly all Christmas songs have in them?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Chestnuts? Santa Claus? Bells?”
“Close,” he said. “Choirs.”
Choirs? “We already knew they responded to songs sung by choirs,” I said, confused.
“Not just to songs sung by choirs. Songs about
choirs. Christmas carols being sung by the choir, angel choirs,
children’s choirs, wassailers, carolers, strike the harp and join the chorus,”
he said. “The angels in ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’ are sweetly
singing o’er the plains. In ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,’ all the
world gives back the song they sing. They’re all about singing,” he
said excitedly. “ ‘That glorious song of old,’ ‘whom angels greet with
anthems sweet.’ ” Look,” he flipped through the pages of his music,
pointing out phrases, “ ‘oh, hear the angel voices,’ ‘as men of old
have sung,’ ‘whom shepherds guard and angels sing,’ ‘let men their
songs employ.’ There are references to singing in songs by Randy
Travis, the ‘Peanuts’ kids, Paul McCartney, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It wasn’t just that ‘While Shepherds Watched’ was sung by a choir. It was that it was a song about
choirs singing. And not just singing, but what they’re singing.” He
thrust the song in front of me, pointing to the last verse. “
‘Goodwill, henceforth from heaven to men.’ That’s what they’ve been
trying to communicate to us.”
I shook my head. “It’s what they’ve been waiting for us to communicate to them. Just like Aunt Judith.”
“I’ll explain later. Right now we’ve got to prove we’re civilized before the Altairi leave.”
“And how do we do that?”
“We sing to them, or rather, the All-City Holiday Ecumenical Sing does.”
“What do we sing?”
wasn’t sure it mattered. I was pretty certain what they were looking
for was proof we could cooperate and work together in harmony, and in
that case, “Mele Kalikimaka” would work as well as “The Peace Carol.”
But it wouldn’t hurt to make things as clear to them as we could. And
it would be nice if it was also something that Reverend Thresher
couldn’t use as ammunition for his Galaxywide Christian Crusade.
need to sing something that will convince the Altairi we’re a civilized
species,” I said, “something that conveys goodwill and peace.
Especially peace. And not religion, if that’s possible.”
“How much time have we got to write it?” Calvin asked. “And we’ll have to get copies made—”
cell phone rang. The screen showed it was Dr. Morthman. “Hang on,” I
said, hitting talk. “I should be able to tell you in a second. Hello?”
“Where are you?” Dr. Morthman shouted. “The ship’s beginning its final ignition cycle.”
whirled around to make sure the Altairi were still there. They were,
thank goodness, and still glaring. “How long does the final cycle
take?” I asked.
“They don’t know,” Dr. Morthman said, “ten minutes at the outside. If you don’t get here immediately—”
I hung up.
“Well?” Calvin said. “How much time have we got?”
“None,” I said.
we’ll have to use something we’ve already got,” he said and began
riffling through his sheaf of music, “and something people know the
harmony to. Civilized . . . civilized . . . I think . . .” He found
what he was looking for and scanned it. “. . . Yeah, if I change a
couple of words, this should do the trick. Do you think the Altairi
“I wouldn’t put it past them.”
“We’ll just do the first two lines. Wait five minutes—”
“So I can brief everybody on the changes. Then bring the Altairi in.”
“Okay,” I said, and he took off at a run for the auditorium.