Zach Powers

What We Gave the Galaxy

It was Halloween when the aliens came, so we mistook them for kids in great costumes. There were the big-eyed grays of Roswell. Ones with tentacles instead of arms. Some were basically just translucent blobs, a mess of organs in see-through sacks. The insectoid and the spider-like. Hairy aliens that could inspire werewolf stories and feline aliens that had the comical tic of pawing their own faces.

It really was the best Halloween ever.

Joni first noticed something amiss when a group of aliens dropped into her bookshop on November 2nd. They browsed politely, but a particularly sticky alien left slime-prints on all the books it touched. Another, with a tiny blue baby face centered on a massive head, hovered a book open in front of itself using only the powers of its mind.

These were clearly not costumes. These were clearly not kids.

The aliens picked up English pretty quickly. They spoke human languages in a way that sounded more like math, as if every sentence was an equation in need of balancing. For example, the first words they spoke to Joni:

“We wish to read your books,” they said, “and your books wish to be read by us.”

Anyway, this situation went on for a few weeks. All these aliens in town, wandering the streets, still expecting to receive candy whenever they knocked on doors.

We had such a hard time explaining holidays.

They, in turn, could never make us grasp how they saw all days as one. Or how they marked time from a perspective outside it. Our minds were too limited, too grounded in the now.

The aliens loved scones. We had to get to the coffee shops as soon as they opened if we ever wanted a scone for ourselves.

Scones aside, the aliens never adjusted to human meals. They were snackers. They adored appetizers. Tandy, who waited tables at Outback, explained how groups of aliens would order one sirloin and cut it into bites to share. They attended art show openings but ignored the art in favor of catered canapés.

There were probably ten thousand aliens in all, and even in this tourist town, where we’re used to comers and goers, their presence was hard not to notice. The aliens traveled in mismatched packs from site to site, but rarely the sites other tourists visited. Not the fountain in the park. Not the railroad museum where you can climb inside old cars. Not the statue of the Revolutionary War soldier, lofting a battle flag in one hand, staunching his mortal wound with the other. Not the restaurant run by the TV chef with a history of racism.

The aliens were generous with their time. They answered as many of our questions as we asked. Even insensitive or annoying ones. Of course, we mostly asked about alien sex. Spores were a shockingly popular option.

We learned that galactic civilization was thriving and advanced, a million sentient species coexisting among the stars. Few planets besides Earth knew anything but peace.

We tried to share our grandest accomplishments. We made sure they read the books by our greatest thinkers: Crichton and Clancy and Franzen. We coerced them to the art museum for an exhibition of impressionist landscapes. We showed them documentaries featuring Saturn Vs and baseball and nuclear explosions.

This is where dealing with the aliens became a bummer.

Nothing we’d produced, nothing we’d done, nothing we deemed original, none of it impressed them in the least. In a sprawling galaxy filled with very smart aliens, literally everything we’d ever thought of had been thought of before.

Even scones, which the aliens so relished, they only relished because they recalled a similar food from another world.

Thanksgiving that year turned disastrous. We’d invited the aliens to share our meals. We set up folding tables and rolled extra desk chairs up to place settings. The shorter aliens sat with the kids. It was homey and warm, at least until we presented the food.

The aliens balked at our spreads. Those with cilia set them aquiver. Those with color-changing skin chameleoned to a threatening hue. Some secreted foul-smelling pheromones. Others made shrill calls of warning. We learned ten thousand new ways to express displeasure. 

After all, no beings who prefer their sustenance bite-sized could possibly be prepared for such human gluttony. Our sheer excess. They were polite about it but excused themselves from our tables before a single platter was passed.

We ate our meals with vacant seats for company.

The next day was awkward. The aliens couldn’t bring themselves to speak to us. Their eyes, those of them who had eyes, wouldn’t meet ours. And for us, how could we possibly relate? How could we ever know—really, truly know—someone who’d never tasted cranberry sauce from a can?

As we browsed the bookshop’s Black Friday sale, Joni worried the aliens would leave, and we’d be alone forever in the universe. Now, when we imagined Earth floating through space, we imagined it smaller than before. A bluish BB, and then a dot, and then a speck, and then an invisible point in proximity to the pinprick of our sun.

The aliens bought all the city’s scones to go. They carried tote bags full of tchotchkes and novelty t-shirts to their awaiting spaceships. They posed for holographic selfies, though always in the strangest of places. It was never clear what background they were trying to capture. The dumpster in the lane? The snarl of power lines? The hungover human couple taking brunch?

The aliens lingered, like at a party when you’re ready to go but too shy to initiate a goodbye.

We didn’t know what to say to them, either.

Or we knew, but how do you ask someone to stay without sounding desperate?

We were about to be dumped by the whole galaxy.

It was Duncan who saved us from this fate, surprising everybody, uppity prick that Duncan was. Cantankerous, rich, opposed to everything in the city that wasn’t exactly as it had been when he was a kid, approximately a hundred years ago.

But Duncan was good for one thing: Christmas decorations.

Seven a.m. Saturday morning, he was out spewing orders at Marguerite, the local handyperson, as she balanced on a tall aluminum ladder, adorning Duncan’s Victorian townhouse with wreaths and garlands and, most importantly as it turned out, twinkle lights.

A few aliens gathered in the square. Then more and more of them. Soon, all the thousands of aliens packed together as one.

The decorating was complete, the twinkle lights barely bright enough to be seen against the sun. But the aliens stared and waited and waited and stared. Dusk came, and when the equation of darkness to twinkle balanced just right, the whole mass of aliens cheered in all their native tongues at once.

A sound raw and pure and lovely.

Tandy asked the aliens what was up.

“In all the galaxy, this is something we have never seen before,” they said, “and we have seen before all other things in the galaxy.”

The aliens stayed there through the night and the next day, and they might still be there if we hadn’t told them that other houses, too, had been decorated. The aliens wandered our streets, oblivious to the cold, touring our decorations, preferring the tackiest, munching scones, and we like to think they finally understood the concept of a holiday, a single day distinct from all the rest.

At the post-Christmas sales, the aliens claimed every discounted strand of lights. Through their spaceships’ windows we could see the strands crisscrossing everywhere. At night, the ships twinkled from within, and somebody who didn’t know better would assume a different technology. The source of their hyperspace speeds, perhaps. But us, we knew the truth.

The New Year arrived, and soon the aliens left us. But it wasn’t like we’d worried it would be. This was a see-you-later. A temporary parting of friends. They even took a human representative with them.

So, this is the story of how humanity joined galactic civilization.

The aliens invited along the one who introduced them to twinkly lights. No, not Duncan, thank the heavens, but Marguerite. Our envoy. The face of the whole human race.

What was she thinking as she boarded the spaceship? What did her Mona Lisa smile imply?

We’re still waiting for her return. We spend our conversations guessing what she’ll tell us she’s seen. We’ll have imagined the whole cosmos before she ever makes it home.

Until then, we gather outside on clear nights and wonder aloud how of all the species among the Milky Way, only us—small, backward, hate-filled, war-torn, spiteful us—thought to recreate the stars.

At Duncan’s house, the lights are still up. The wreaths and garlands wilt. Marguerite left before Duncan could hire her to take them down. And he’s too old and too frail and too human to do the deed himself.


Zach Powers is the author of the novel First Cosmic Velocity (Putnam, 2019) and the story collection Gravity Changes (BOA Editions, 2017). His writing has been featured by American Short Fiction, Lit Hub, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. He serves as Artistic Director for The Writer’s Center and Poet Lore, America’s oldest poetry magazine. From Savannah, Georgia, he lives in Arlington, Virginia. Get to know him at