He was wearing an EDA uniform with the rank of sergeant. He was also standing on a pair of artificial legs, which were heavily in fashion this year. His right arm was a robotic replacement, too. For a moment I almost didn’t recognize him. His self-satisfied smirk was long gone.
He held out a pen, along with a copy of our senior yearbook, open to my photo. Because of the war, our class had never even had a proper graduation ceremony. They had mailed us our diplomas, along with our yearbooks.
I took the yearbook and scrawled my name beneath my photo. Then I paused a moment to study the clueless, smiling teenager in the picture. For a moment I almost didn’t recognize him either.
I handed the book back to him. He tucked it under his lone arm.
“I was sorry to hear about your father,” I told him.
He glanced at his shoes and nodded.
“Wish I could say the same,” he muttered. “The world is a better place without him.”
He gave me a sad smile, then motioned to the statue of my father, looming over both of us. “You must be really proud of him.”
I nodded. “I am.”
“If he was here now, I’m sure he’d be proud of you, too,” he said.
I opened my mouth to respond, but no words came out. Knotcher had obviously done a lot of growing up—maybe even more than I had. I wondered if he’d heard about Casey, the boy he’d bullied mercilessly throughout most of high school. He’d died during the first wave, along with his whole family, and millions of others.
I decided to not bring Casey up. I’m sure he knew.
We stood there in silence for another moment, staring at my father’s statue. Then Knotcher turned to go. But first he offered me his left hand—the real one.
I reached out with my own left hand to shake it. Then, without another word, he turned and walked off, into the crowd.
I never saw him again.
AFTER THE CEREMONY, the four of us went to visit my father’s grave—me, Lex, my mom, and my three-month-old baby brother, little Xavier Ulysses Lightman, Jr.—the kid whose name ensured that he would never have to pay for a drink as long as he lived.
We’d visited my father’s tombstone many times, of course, but his empty casket had been exhumed a few months after he died, and we’d had another funeral for him. And this time, we’d filled his casket with old mementos before they buried it again. I’d put a few of his old mixtapes in there. I’d thought about burying his old high-score jacket with him, but then decided that I should keep it to give to my little brother. He must’ve sensed this, too—because whenever I wore the jacket, like I did today, Xavier Jr. was constantly reaching out to grab hold of its patches, then would refuse to let go.
“No, J. R.!” I would tell him (he seemed to prefer these initials over “junior”). “Mine! You can have it when you’re big enough to wear it, little man.” And then he would gurgle happily back at me.
When we reached my father’s gravesite, we discovered the ground around it piled high with flowers, notes, and gifts from well-wishers around the world, as usual. My mother added her handpicked bouquet to the pile; then we stood there in silence for a while, admiring the sunset and paying our respects.
When we finally bid my father farewell and turned to go, I paused to admire the inscription on his new headstone, which I’d had a hand in writing:
XAVIER ULYSSES LIGHTMAN
BELOVED HUSBAND, FATHER, AND SON
HE SAVED HUMANITY FROM TOTAL ANNIHILATION
I stood there, staring at his headstone, thinking over everything that had happened over the past year. Soon after the war ended, I’d received an offer from the EDA to take on an ambassadorial role to the Sodality, but I’d turned it down. I wasn’t interested in helping either the asshole aliens who’d devised such a horrible “test” and murdered my father—or the human powers-that-be who had lied to all of humanity for decades and nearly brought us to extinction.
As the Emissary had promised, things on Earth were changing for the better, thanks to the Sodality’s advanced technology and medicine. My mom had to find a new nursing job for the best possible reason—we now had a cure for all forms of cancer, which had eradicated the disease in a matter of weeks. And most other diseases, too. The Sodality had also gifted us a new form of cheap, clean, fusion energy technology. It looked as if humanity had begun a new age of wonders and miracles.
Perhaps it was my late father’s influence, but despite all of their generous gifts, I still felt mistrustful of the Sodality. In hindsight, their “test” seemed like more of a trap—one they had set and baited for all of humanity. How benevolent could the beings behind such immoral machinations really be?
Yes, they had shared all of these technological advances with humanity, but they still hadn’t revealed any real details about themselves, or the different alien species they claimed made up the Sodality, always using the excuse that “humanity wasn’t ready for that knowledge yet” and that it was “beyond our primitive understanding.”
Whenever I read about this in the news, I heard the echo of my father’s words: “This human understands enough to know when he’s being messed with.”
Now I couldn’t shake that same suspicion. They had messed with us, and they clearly weren’t finished messing with us.
How long would their generosity last? What would happen if and when it ended?
I looked over at my loved ones. Lex. My mother. And little Xavier Jr. I wondered what sort of world he was going to grow up in—what sort of world we were going to allow the Sodality to impose on us.
That was the moment when I realized I couldn’t stay at Starbase Ace. There was no going back to the life I’d had before, because it was gone—for everyone—along with the world in which we’d lived it.
I couldn’t just sit on the sidelines and remain disengaged from the world. Not after everything that had happened—and everything that might be in store for humanity.
When I got back home that evening, I took out my QComm and dialed my friend Dr. Shostak. I told him I had decided to become one of Earth’s ambassadors to the Sodality after all. In time, I hoped my new job would eventually put me in a position to learn the truth about our new alien benefactors’ true motives.
For the time being, I intended to try to follow Master Yoda’s timeless advice—to keep my mind on where I was, and what I was doing. And to do everything I could to protect what was now most important to me. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. After all of the things that had happened to me, after everything I’d been through, I no longer found myself staring out the window and daydreaming of adventure.