Chapter 5 - In which the aliens establish a voting page… for EVERYONE.

It was mid-July, and about six weeks before school started when the website got a new tab, and it was called, simply, "Vote." Lisa clicked on it while I hovered behind her breathlessly. I was at her house, for a change, in the living room decorated rather chaotically with a mix of German Black Forest cuckoo clocks and crucifixes alongside Korean paintings and good luck cat figurines.

Humans of Earth, please vote for or against our ship coming to your planetary orbit, so that we may send an ambassador to greet you as a diplomatic formality.

To vote, you must have access to a microphone and camera. Record one of the following two phrases to cast your vote. You may either record your vote directly to this website, or you may upload it following the instructions below.

Then there were two phrases, listed side-by-side.

I, (your full name here), vote to have the Sirara ship enter Earth orbit and send an ambassador to attempt to establish a peaceful alliance.

I, (your full name here), vote to have the Sirara ship leave our star system and never return.

After that were the links for uploading the video.

"Wait," I said. "So… like, every person gets to vote? Everyone?"

"Dang," Lisa said, sounding impressed. At the bottom of the screen a simple bar graph appeared, showing in real time the votes as they were being cast. "Whoah, look at that!" she pointed.

"Wow, crap," I said. "Okay. Let's do this. Let's do it. You first."

She pulled in a long, deep breath, double-checked that her mic was connected, and clicked the button. A window appeared, showing her, and me hovering over her shoulder. I jerked out of the frame reflexively.

"I, Lisa Jae Eun Ackermann, vote to have the Sirara ship… enter Earth orbit and send an ambassador to attempt to establish a peaceful alliance." She giggled nervously and then clicked the Okay button. And just like that, she helped change the course of human history. "Your turn!" she said, and bounced out of the chair.

I slid into it, and stared at the simple little button. Suddenly, the enormity of what we were doing overwhelmed me. I stared at the button for so long that Lisa finally laid her hand on my shoulder. "Danny?" she said, concern coloring her voice.

"Lis," I murmured quietly. "Aliens. Coming to Earth. This is huge. We should just… take a moment. When we're old and grey our grandkids are gonna wanna know where we were when this happened.

Then I clicked. I cleared my throat. "I, Danielle Moira Harper, vote to have the Sirara ship enter Earth orbit and send an ambassador to attempt to establish a peaceful alliance." I blinked a couple of times and then clicked the Okay button. Then we looked at each other. "Whew," I said. "Whew."

That night, I slept more deeply than I had in months.

The next day was the first day of summer camp. Every summer our school offered a few week-long camps to the children, some fun, others practical. My camp was, of course, about arts - this summer I was focusing on polymer clay crafts. Most of the teachers signed up for at least one because it was a moderate little stipend, and honestly, you can only do so much binge-watching. Lisa and I carpooled, like always, and we got there bright and early. The day was remarkably normal. We greeted our students, went over routines and schedules, walked them through rules and camp procedures, and consequences good and bad. And all day we fielded questions about the aliens. As it turns out, many of the children were intimidated by their parent's reactions to the aliens, and felt safer asking us questions they hadn't been able to bring up at home.

"Are the aliens going to kill us?" asked a little girl, Susan. She had great big brown eyes. I wanted to call her Boo.

"I don't think so, sweetie. They traveled all this way to say hello, and they have been very nicely asking permission to come to the planet and see us in person. If they were mean aliens, I don't think they'd ask, do you?"

"Where are they right now?" asked a little boy, Jonah.

This I had prepared for, and I pulled up a diagram of our solar system on the overhead display. "This is our sun," I said. "It sits in outer space, like all the other stars and planets do. Around the sun go the Earth and the other planets, like Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. There's lots of other stuff, too, like the Asteroid Belt, and way, way out here, is the Kuiper Belt."

"Why is a belt in space? Did it break?"

"Did someone throw it up there?"

"Is it a spankin' belt?"

I held up my hands to quiet them down. "One, two, three, eyes on me," I recited. "One, two, eyes on you!" they chorused back. Then I continued. "The Kuiper Belt and the Asteroid Belt aren't belts like you wear around your waist to keep your pants up. They're just big, big, big rings of debris - rocks and dust and asteroids and little baby planets and chunks of ice and stuff that go around and around the sun." A bunch of sage nods from the little kids at this point.

"Now, the Kuiper Belt is kind of like the Asteroid Belt, but it's really, really far away. We'll talk more about just how far it is, later. But right now, what you need to know is that it takes seven and a half hours for the aliens, who we call Whistlers, to send us a radio message. And radio waves travel as fast as light travels, and light is the very fastest thing in the whole wide universe!"

"Wow!" said a girl. She was echoed by most of the others.

"Are they gonna come to Earth and visit, or are they gonna go away?"

I shrugged. "We don't know, yet. Everybody is voting on that right now. All the grownups, all over the world. We can vote for them to come, or go."

"Can kids vote, too?"

Then I paused. "Well, I don't know," I said. "The website didn't say they couldn't… but you guys aren't really old enough to make such a big decision, yet. This is really something that grownups should decide."

"When is voting gonna be done?" a boy asked. "'Cause when there was a election, it took forever and then I had to stand in line with Mommy and my feet were hurted."

I suppressed a grin. "You should say, 'my feet hurt,' or 'my feet were in pain.' And you don't have to stand in line to vote about the aliens, if you have a computer and the internet at home," I told him. He looked relieved. "You vote on the computer. And the voting is going to be open for the next month. That way it gives everyone, everywhere, a chance to vote. Because, you know, a lot of people don't have their own computers, so they have to borrow someone else's to make the vote, or they have to go to the library and use one of those."

"What about if you live in Syria and you don't have any computers anywhere and you live in a cave because otherwise terrorists will blow you up?" a girl asked. "Because my uncle was in Syria and he had to live in a cave and run away from terrorists because they wanted to kill him. But he got away and he lives in our garage, now, and he makes me cookies."

"Wow," I said. "Okay. Um, well, if you can't get to a computer because you're in a cave or anywhere too far away, then I guess you won't be able to vote."

"That's not fair," chimed in a boy. "Everyone should vote."

"It's about as fair as anyone can make it," I tell him gently. And that's true. Because all over the world thousands upon thousands of volunteers are bringing laptops and smartphones to people in remote areas. Educational pamphlets with pictures and facts are being given away by the millions, and plans are underway to let as many people vote as possible. Everyone on Earth should have a say, and people from both sides of the debate are out in force to bring the choice to as many people as possible. More than a few bring their own agendas with them, but the world isn't a perfect place.

Throughout the day I keep a child-appropriate educational news channel on the overhead, usually on silent, because it prominently displays the results of the vote. The children are excited by the fluctuating numbers and debate fiercely about whether yes or no will win.

The teachers and staff are talking about it, too. "What do you think the results will be, Paul?" I ask the third-grade science teacher curiously. "Invite them in or send them away?"

"They're coming," he said, his eyes alight with conviction. "There's no way Earth will send them off. There are too many unanswered questions, too much we want to know, to just leave it at that."

"I don't know," said the counselor, Janine. We were all sitting in the break room, talking over the hum of the copier. "This whole thing is really scary, and a lot of people are reacting with fear. And think of all the votes from rural places in third-world countries - most of them are No, according to the news."

"I think that's because all the nay-sayers are out there paying them to vote that way, without explaining what's going on," I guessed. "I heard that as soon as the Voting Process tab was up people started going out there and pushing their own agendas. It's a lot easier to manipulate people if you're their only source of news."

"Or the concept is so new and scary to them that they just say no from a gut-reaction," Paul surmised. He shakes his head. "But most of the voters DO have internet access, and are in cities and metropolises and first-world countries."

Janine and I nodded. "The numbers are so close right now," I added. "It's impossible to predict, yet."

That night I sat on my couch and watched as it was demonstrated how repeat votes couldn't be made. "Apparently," my trusty news anchor, Neville, said, "The aliens are employing an advanced face-and-voice-recognition system. Once you've voted, you've voted and that's it. We've tried everything we can think of to fool it, as have plenty of others around the world. So far, it's fool-proof."

"If they leave us with nothing else, let's get that technology from them," his co-anchor said, a perky brunette named Anita Patel. "We could use a fraud-proof voting system!"

I had to give a wry smile at that. Lisa was back in her own house, now, with her cat in tow, and my own house felt empty without her. I missed the bubbly humor.

With the news still playing, I got up and wandered aimlessly around my living room, too full of energy to sit still. I stood in front of my meager collection of family photos, all of which were on the wall. There was me as a little girl, hunched over and hugging myself, smiling shyly at the camera. The dress I wore was supposed to look something like Dorothy's from the Wizard of Oz, but it was stained in a couple of places. My hair looked unkempt and greasy.

There was my mother, sitting on the edge of a swimming pool, cigarette dangling from her lips, half her face hidden by enormous sunglasses. I don't remember who took the photo - some friend of hers, who gave it to me at her funeral.

Then, a picture of my maternal grandparents, dressed neatly and posed for a yellowing Sears portrait, with my mother as a small child on my grandmother's lap.

That was it. There were no pictures of my father. When he left us, when I was young, my mother had taken the photo album in a fit of anger and burned the entire thing. She was impulsive like that. We were too poor to really have something as nice as a camera. In fact the only radio we owned had been attached to the dashboard of the car - she always played country music. Now I hate country music. We never had cable, or fresh vegetables, or a stable place to live. We'd moved just about every single summer when I was a kid, because my mother had never been able to hold down a job for longer than a year. I remember more than once sleeping in the car between apartments.

We lived in a constant state of poverty. Many a night I went to bed hungry and woke up ravenous, desperate to get to school for my free lunch and breakfast. On weekends I invited myself to the neighbor's house and offered to babysit just for the food I could get away with.

I never realized it then, but I must have reeked. We always had too many cats and never enough litter boxes. My mom rarely cleaned. Dishes were always high in the sink, crawling with roaches. Laundry was washed once a month or so, and I learned to be careful so that I didn't stain my clothes - I knew I would need to re-wear every item a few times before we could get to the laundromat. It was no wonder that I never had any real friends at school, always the new girl who smelled funny and got free lunch and kept her nose in a book or a sketchpad.

My solace was reading, and drawing. Who needed friends when I could pick up a book or put a pencil on a piece of paper and draw the most amazing characters? I read about dragons, and drew them. Dashing knights and space ship captains came alive in the books I read, and I drew them near-obsessively.

I turned away from the pictures I was looking at and took down an old sketchbook, flipping through the childish images. Anime characters and Disney princesses and studies of the world around me.

I'd had to steal the sketchbooks, every single one, because my mother never bothered to supply me with art supplies. She'd always looked at my pictures and given a half-hearted, 'Wow, great," before going back to her shows. There were 11 stolen sketchbooks on my bookshelf.

I was quite the thief, growing up. Mostly food, to be honest. Granola bars and packs of lunch meat and juice bottles were usually small enough to hide in my voluminous t-shirts, though I wasn't above stealing candy bars, sometimes. Then the sketchbooks, some colored pencils, and comic books and novels, too. One summer I stole the entire 11-book series of Anne of Green Gables, one book at a time. I was confident that I could have learned how to pickpocket, but I'd never gone that far.

When I was 17 I stopped stealing. I had never been caught, not once. Not even close. But I knew that someday my luck would run out, and I didn't want a criminal record. I'd only ever told Lisa about my childhood stealing. She had not understood, because she'd never been poor, and her parents had been attentive and loved her and sacrificed for their children's future. They'd taught her how to be a functioning adult, and showered her with love and advice and acceptance.

My first job had been at a comic book store - the very store that I used to steal from. I learned to run a cash register, take inventory, and deal with customers. I was also a pro at spotting thieves. If they were poor, I usually let them get away with it once or twice, but if it looked like some rich kid stealing because they were bored - and there were a LOT of those - we caught them, and put an end to it.

Once, I was closing up shop and we got robbed. I remember going to lock the door when two guys busted through it, their faces covered by bandanas. For a second I thought they were cosplaying, because this was a comic book store, but then I saw the gun, and I let them take the entire cash register. Not just the money - the entire machine. My boss is the one who bought be the gun, after that. He was a tall thin man with a gorgeous wife and an adorable little girl, and he thought of me as a daughter. "Your graduation gift," he'd told me when he handed it to me.

"I graduated a month ago," I told him.

"Yeah, well. Don't get hurt. You gotta go to college and draw some comics. I'll be your biggest fan," he told me. "We'll put your first issue front and center, okay?"

I never did get into drawing comic books. But I loved teaching. I loved being a person who these kids could trust, someone who was safe and loving, because it's a fact that not all of them got that at home. I knew from experience.

That night, I fell asleep with the news on, clutching the picture of my grandparents. I dreamed of a world where no kids went hungry and every child was wanted and cherished. I dreamed that I was travelling to distant worlds in a Jetsons-style starship driven by Whistlers, on a mission to save the world from a terrible threat. When I woke up in the morning, though, I didn't remember what the threat was.