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What if Earth was just colony—and all life was ending in a week? True or not, Cate, Adeem, and Jesse are running out of time to face their truths and right their wrongs. Cate is desperate to find the father she never met. Adeem might want to forgive his sister for leaving. And to Jesse, well, does any of it even matter? Find out in this week's FIRST5 pick.

THE OFFICIAL RECORDS OF THE INTER PLANETARY AFFAIRS COMMITTEE

TRIAL: TERMINATION OF PROJECT EPOCH
DURATION : EIGHT DAYS

ANNUNCIATION AND ROLL CALL: The Interplanetary Affairs Committee (IAC) designated this unit, Unit 212-G, to take these minutes as official record.

Thirteen (13) Scions—randomly selected citizens of Alma— compose the grand jury. The trial will be overseen by an Arbiter chosen by the IAC. Their task is to determine the fate of Project Epoch, a long-standing experiment to test the sustainability of life on another planet, which according to the results of Public Referendum 5571a is now up for review and potential termination. For the purposes of anonymity, the names of the 13 Scions will be omitted from these records.

TRANSCRIPT
EXCERPT FROM TRIAL

ARBITER: Our objective here is simple: to decide the fate of the experiment known as Project Epoch. There has been much discussion in the public sphere regarding the role of this grand jury in a philosophical sense. Should we consider ethical factors in our decision? Morality? Politics? Or are these simply distractions? Let me be clear. Our laws state that the primary role of this grand jury is a pragmatic one. Our task, therefore, is to reconsider the continuation of Project Epoch in terms of what is best for the practical situation of our sovereign planet, Alma, and the future of all its citizens.

SCION 11: But doesn't our conclusion depend on the viability of other alternatives? If we can remotely sabotage the Anathogen diffuser before it activates, do we propose new reinitialization sites?

SCION 2: Are there even new reinitialization sites to propose?

SCION 12: We have deployed probes to alternative reinitialization sites, but none has proven as viable a habitat as Project Epoch, or as time efficient.

And given our own planet's precarious status, time is no longer on our side. Terraforming, reinitializing, even colonizing—those are no longer realistic options. Epoch remains the most feasible choice for a new home unless we allow the specimens of our experiment to destroy its delicate equilibrium.

SCION 6: That is precisely why our scientists implanted the Anathogen virus. They foresaw the local population's failure to ensure the Project's long-term sustainability. It is tempting to give the local population the benefit of the doubt, but their enduring inability to cultivate the planet is the most damning argument against its continuation.

SCION 10: We are in agreement on one thing: it is time to step in. We can no longer afford to be naïve in this matter—or allow our investment in the Project to be so drastically compromised.

SCION 4: The population of Epoch may have already received communications confirming our planet's existence. Everything has been compromised.

[The jury bursts into inaudible murmurs.]

ARBITER: Order, please. Order, or I will shut the feeds. [More muttering, gradually subdued.] I will remind the tribunal and those witnessing our deliberations that whether Project Epoch is aware of the trial is irrelevant . The deliberations will go on, and our decision will be made. That is our task. The question remains: Should we continue to monitor Project Epoch and sustain the only other intelligent life that remains in the galaxy? Or do we allow the implanted Anathogen virus to disperse in eight days, as scheduled, and terminate the Project for good?

I open the floor to testimony and opinion.

Dear Joanna,
You’re right. I did take those aq uamarine earrings back in college. I just wanted to be a little more like you.
I’m sorry.

Dear Taylor,
I hope you get this message. Mom and I forgive you. We love you. We want you to come home.

Dear Lucy,
No, you know what? YOU’RE the bitch. Love, your sister

Mama,
It’s Lynn. I’m sorry I’ve been a shitty daughter. If I don’t get a chance to talk to you before, then know that I missed you every day. Goodbye.

Emmy,
I was too much of a coward to send you that song
I promised. I’ll always wonder if we could have been something more.

G—
I don’t know where you are or if you’ll even care to hear from me, but meeting you was the best thing that ever happened to me. Thank you.

To the girl with the yellow backpack

on the weekday morning Q train,

You calmed me down when we got stuck underground, and I’ve

been crushing on you so hard ever since.

If I get a chance to see you one more time,

I’ll tell you in person.

Dear Flynn,
You were right—it was yours. I’m so sorry.

Mom, Dad, Sammy, Shan:
I don’t know if any of this is real,
but just in case: I love you. So much.
I’m praying for your safety.

Jeb,
I told you this would happen. I TOLD YOU.

Dearest Devi,
I screwed up real bad when we said goodbye.
No matter what Ajay’s told you,
know that I loved you more than anyone.

Khalil,
I faked it the whole time. Peace out, asshole.
I hope the aliens probe you first.

1
JESSE

“Don’t you dare,” Jesse muttered. But the closeness of Ian’s mouth on his neck killed his willpower, making his threat weak, and his knees weaker. Ian was teasing him, definitely teasing. And although it felt kinda good—okay, really freaking good—he didn’t exactly like being at someone else’s mercy.

Especially Ian’s.

Teeth grazing. Mouth tightening. Jesse could practically hear his skin pop as he watched his own breath come out in clouds against the cold September night air. But as Ian’s hand explored down his arm, as his fingers brushed against the leather cuff Jesse wore around his wrist and reached for the hem of his T-shirt, pleasure slipped into annoyance.

Jesse threaded his own fingers between Ian’s, keeping them in place.

Jesse had two rules: his clothes stayed on—well, except for his pants, currently unzipped, if that even counted—and no touching the cuff.

And then it was over. Ian pulled away, smiling. The limegreen Close Encounters sign gave Ian’s cheekbones a neon cast as it flickered and buzzed. Jesse was surprised the sign stayed lit at all; the place, like many others in Roswell, had closed down months ago.

Jesse’s skin burned where Ian’s mouth had been. He released Ian’s hand and pressed his cool palm against the sear.

“Jesus. Really? A hickey?” He zipped his pants.

“Didn’t hear you complain.” Ian’s smile faded. “Plus”—he looked away—“I wanted to leave you somethin’ to remember me by.”

For the last few months, Jesse and Ian had been meeting in the back of Close Encounters to have close encounters—of the casual kind. Before Ian, it was Joey behind the Arby’s— his choice, not Jesse’s. Before Joey, it was Ryan in the UFO Museum parking lot. Etcetera. Jesse was good at picking out the tourists who seemed a little more interested in him than the souvenirs he used to sell at the Roswell Plaza Hotel gift shop. Usually, it didn’t last. The tourists left. That was the great thing about tourists: built-in security.

But Ian wasn’t one of the usual picks, in part because Jesse had lost the gift shop gig. Ian went to the same school as Jesse, and thanks to Jesse’s poor attendance—and his “behavior challenges,” as his principal called it, Jesse was held back the year before, which made them both juniors now. He had seen Ian around; he just didn’t realize Ian was interested in him until recently. Turns out Ian was just as good at keeping a low profile as Jesse was.

Jesse had wanted to—meant to—end it a while ago, but he hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Besides, with the extreme lack of tourism these days, Ian grew more and more . . . convenient.

That ’s all, Jesse told himself. Convenient.

So here they were again, in the most run-down part of Roswell, in the middle of the night, flat desert spread around them both like a musty hotel blanket. A seemingly normal night, even if the wood fence behind them was covered in graffiti depicting green aliens in sombreros.

Except that it wasn’t like Ian to leave a trace on him, and he knew damn well how Jesse felt about anyone staking a claim on him. Claims meant emotional investments. And investments meant living up to someone’s expectations.

And expectations would only disappoint.

Jesse knew. He’d disappointed enough already.

“I have to tell you somethin’.” Ian spoke gently. His accent was more intense tonight, which meant one of two things: (1) Ian was angry, or (2) Ian was nervous. Either way, it wasn’t a good sign, and it put Jesse on edge. “There’s—there’s been a change of plans.” 

Jesse knew that tone of voice. He knew plans, and how they changed. His throat tightened. “Spit it out.”

“We’re leavin’.” Ian sighed. “Tomorrow. I’m leavin’ tomorrow.”

A flare of pain shot through Jesse’s chest, but he immediately flashed his trademark cover-up smile. “Oh. Good for you, man.”

“We’re headin’ to my grandpop’s place in Nashville. I mean, I can’t blame them. Roswell’s a hellhole, and it’s only getting worse. My dad’s shop hasn’t had a car come in for weeks.” He brushed a clump of sweaty bronze strands off his forehead. “Blame NASA, I guess.”

It had been three months since NASA and some other science-y, alien-seeking organizations had supposedly discovered a nearby planet they called Kepler that could sustain life—that did sustain life. Two weeks since scientists supposedly intercepted an encoded radio message from the planet itself. The bunch of static they picked up was apparently more than just, well, static. What it meant was anyone’s guess.

But it didn’t matter if NASA hadn’t yet figured out how to decode the message, if it even was that. It didn’t matter that the whole story was probably cooked up bullshit, more government distraction tactics. All anyone ever wanted to talk about now was real aliens. Not the big-headed stuffed ones you could win at Close Encounters if you had enough tickets, back in its heyday, or the cardboard cutout you could take a picture with inside Pluto’s Diner, where Jesse’s mom worked. Fake aliens weren’t all that exciting anymore, hadn’t been for decades, and it wasn’t long before tourists, as few as there were, stopped showing up. Even Roswell’s small local population had begun to dwindle to near-ghost-town numbers. Jesse’s mom had called it the end of Roswell as they knew it—a total exaggeration, Jesse had thought at the time.

Now he was changing his mind. 

Jesse shrugged. “No need to explain yourself to me. Your life is none of my business.” The words fell from his mouth faster than he could stuff them back in. His counselor would shake her head if she could hear him. He’d just seen her yesterday for their weekly at La Familia Crisis Center, and the sound of her featherlight voice was still fresh in his mind. Only five seconds of thought stand between you and a crapton of regret, she’d say. Too late, though.

“None of your—?” Ian’s fists curled. For a moment, Ian stared at Jesse, as though searching for something. Then he shook his head. “Ya know, I really liked you.”

Jesse’s skin prickled. He’d heard the same words come from Joey, from Ryan, from all the others who tried to stop him from pulling away from their lives. But the worst part about all this was that this time, it was Ian who was leaving.

Jesse should have broken things off weeks ago, when he’d first had the thought that maybe he would meet Ian’s folks and stay for dinner, maybe he would hang around Mr. Keller’s auto shop.

He’d been letting himself get too close.

“Yeah, sure. What we had was fun, and now what we had is over,” Jesse said. And why had Ian thought it was a good idea to hook up one last time before dropping this news? Now Jesse just felt stupid. He pulled his leather motorcycle jacket— the one with the ugly crow patch on the front—closer around him. It was too big for him, but the extra leather felt good— protective, somehow. It’s why he always kept his clothes on during every hookup. Most of them, anyway. “It’s better this way,” he said, forcing a laugh. “Trust me.”

Ian was quiet for a while. He looked down and licked his dry lips. “It’s funny,” he finally said, in a way that wasn’t funny at all. “I knew what people said about you, but I didn’t care. I didn’t believe ’em.”

Jesse didn’t need to ask what he meant. People were always running their mouths about him at school—whispering that he was white trash, that he was a thief, that he was a piece of shit. It wasn’t even being gay that was the problem. Jesse’s sexuality was like his tattered leather jacket: a part of him, nothing more. Just one of the many reasons people chose to keep their distance from Jesse, and Jesse chose to keep his distance from everybody else.

He rubbed at his wrist, at the raised scar tissue beneath his leather cuff. “Maybe you should have,” Jesse said.

“Yeah.” Ian’s voice cracked. “Yeah, maybe.”

Jesse almost said I’m sorry. And he was. The truth was that every fiber in his body screamed, Please don’t leave me behind.

But what was the point? In the end, all he could muster was an icy “See you around.”

Ian managed a laugh that sounded like he was choking. “I doubt it.”

There was nothing more to say. Jesse could feel the weight of Ian’s gaze on his back, the heaviness of Ian’s anger and pity. He took a deep breath, ignoring the twisting in his stomach. He would not turn around.

Ian would go to Nashville and forget all about Roswell and Close Encounters and the nights they’d spent touching each other under its fluorescent radiance. He’d forget all about Jesse.

And Jesse would stay here. Jesse would always stay here.

Above him, the stars were winking. Gloating, maybe.

Or maybe they felt sorry for him, too.

Copyright © 2019 by Farah Naz Rishi