Alan Dean Foster is the author of 125 books, hundreds of pieces of short fiction, essays, columns reviews, the occasional op-ed for the NY Times, and the story for the first Star Trek movie. Having visited more than 100 countries, he is still bemused by the human condition. He lives with his wife JoAnn and numerous dogs, cats, coyotes, hawks, and a resident family of bobcats in Prescott, Arizona.

Prodigals by Alan Dean Foster

If they're coming for us, who's coming for them?

The galaxy is vast and not everything is what it seems. The invasion we always feared is here. Which begs the question: what do the invaders fear? If not us, then what … or who? And what happens to the would-be peacemakers when they find themselves in the middle of something else? Something dangerous, something highly advanced, and … something familiar?

A wise humanity prepares for everything it can imagine.

It cannot prepare for what it cannot imagine.

That might be benign, it might be malign, or there might be a sign.

You just have to know where to look.





"Morning, Dev."

"Good morning, Charlie." Slipping the brown leather strap off his shoulder, Devali Mukherjee let his satchel slide gently down onto his desk. Slender as he was, it slid off easily. Regular cardio sessions at the gym together with running in the city parks kept him trim and fit, if not muscular. Settling into his seat, he leaned back and contemplated infinity—alongside his much paler friend's currently fashionable unshaven visage. Dev frowned. Although it was not required by his job, he took particular pride in his neatness. That meant keeping his straight black hair cut short and his beard invisible. "Anything of interest this morning?"

His colleague took a breath before beginning. "Well, the Chinese are making irritated noises about some components of the last aid package we promised to Vietnam, suicide bombing at an international school in Lahore killed a security guard plus the two bombers, the Mapuche Resistance Front is still threatening to pull out of the peace talks we've been brokering in Santiago, and the Chinese-Taiwan talks seem to be making some progress even if the pace makes a snail race look like the Indy 500. Oh, and one more thing." Pulling down the hem of his white shirt so that it once more fully covered his belly he paused for effect, though considering the nature of the news it was unnecessary. "At 02:47 this morning, a giant alien spacecraft appeared over Panama."

Dev offered a thin smile as he methodically unpacked his laptop. "I know it is early, and it is Friday, but is that the best you can do?" It struck him that Charlie did not smile back.

"No, I can do better than that." His white-shirted colleague nodded at Dev's desk. "Turn on your computer. Go to any channel. Doesn't have to be all-news. Everybody's carrying the same feeds."

Dev hesitated, smiled afresh, then frowned. Straightening in the chair, he entered his initial security clearance for the day. Another screen appeared, featuring a fresh request. Upon receiving the second requisite security code, the monitor flashed to life. Most of it was currently occupied by a very famous female news anchor. She was speaking rapidly and sweating profusely. Muting the sound automatically brought up the equivalent text at the bottom of the screen. Occupying much of the tropical sky behind her was either a superimposed special effect from a big budget fantasy film or something the approximate length and width of New York's Central Park. A glistening charcoal gray that resembled rough cut marcasite, it hung suspended among the clouds, looking like a gigantic conglomeration of recently mined druzy that somehow was richly illuminated from within.

Dev stared at it, unaware that several billion other inhabitants of the planet were at that moment doing exactly the same thing. Among the several billion, those who were not panicking were mostly silent. He did not know that for certain, of course, but on remembrance it struck him that the fourth-floor complex where he worked had been unusually quiet when he had exited the elevator. He hadn't thought about it at the time because a little uncommon quietude did not galvanize the senses in the same way as, say, an exploding terrorist bomb accompanied by panicked shrieking. Now that he looked back on it, he realized that the usual stir of activity, the background susurration of idle chatter, had been entirely absent.

Rising, Dev moved to stand behind his friend. If it was an office gag, a clever prank, then it was also playing full time on Charlie's monitor. He looked around. Everyone else was similarly glued to their respective desk screens. No one was glancing in his direction and giggling. He was forced to concede the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that it was not a joke. That he, and everyone else in his immediate vicinity, was presently witness to Something Momentous.

"Have they made contact?" He found himself whispering without knowing why.

"According to all the reports that have been verified thus far, the visitors haven't done anything." Charlie's initial insouciance had given way to a deepening solemnity. "That's assuming there's anything definable as 'visitors' inside. Aside from what hints at internal illumination, there's nothing to indicate that the object is tenanted. There's already been a lot of speculation to the effect that it's nothing more than a mechanical drone, perhaps some sort of scientific probe. It was first picked up by a bunch of amateur as well as professional sky searchers when it materialized inside the orbit of Mars." Charlie glanced back at his colleague. "You know: those folks who spend hours looking for new comets and asteroids. It came straight toward Earth at a whacking great velocity, apparently sending everybody's air defense systems into spasms as soon as it got close enough for them to detect it. We've received one report claiming that in the ensuing confusion the Russians shot down one of their own satellites. Before anybody's systems could get into serious defense mode, it hit the brakes and stopped right where you see it." He gestured at the monitor. "There it sits, or hovers, rather. Not moving, not communicating, doing nothing except frightening the bejeezus out of folks."

Not sharing his coworker's fatalistic sense of humor, Dev was furiously conjuring his own opinion. "If it's an autonomous probe, it's doing its work peacefully."

"So far. Interesting choice of positioning. Why Panama?"

"With luck we may find out."

Charlie made a rude noise. "With luck we may not."

Dev eyed his friend disapprovingly. "The greatest encounter in the history of humankind, and you just want it to finish its work and go away? Aren't you the least bit curious about its purpose? Its ultimate intentions?"

"Yes," Charlie admitted. "But I'm more scared than I am curious."

Fifteen minutes or so passed, during which an assortment of pundits pontificated on screen and the alien object maintained its attitude of doing absolutely nothing. At the end of the highly uninformative quarter hour, two men appeared and approached the desk. Neither Dev nor Charlie recognized them. Proof that they were not native to the fourth floor was evident from their apparel. Instead of open-necked shirts of varying hue and sleeve length, they wore dark suits, white shirts, and dark ties. Their shoes were dark, their socks were dark, and their expressions were dark. All that was missing, Dev thought, were the dark glasses. Those probably resided in inside jacket pockets, waiting for the right moment to be extracted.

Stopping beside the desk, they looked both its owner and Dev up and down.

"Which one of you is Devali Mukherjee?" Before Dev could reply, Charlie spoke up.

"Who wants to know?"

By way of reply, the nearest of the two visitors removed a small wallet from an interior breast pocket and flipped it open. Charlie and Dev stared at it. When the wallet's owner felt they'd had sufficient time to assess the contents, he snapped it shut and returned it to its resting place. Dev responded.

"I'm Mukherjee. You couldn't tell by looking at us?"

"We don't work that way," the other visitor said. He took a step forward. "We need you to come with us, Mr. Mukherjee."

Someone released a couple of butterflies in Dev's stomach. "Am I under arrest or something? Do I need to call my lawyer?"

"You're not under arrest." The second speaker made an effort to smile. It didn't do much for the seriousness of his expression, Dev thought, but at least the man tried. "But we do need you to come with us."

Far less reticent than his colleague, both due to his slightly pugnacious nature and also the fact that he wasn't being asked to go anywhere, Charlie straightened in his chair and raised his voice.

"Why should he go with you anywhere? Because you flashed some Federal ID? Where are you taking him?" Attracted by the commotion, several other operatives tore their attention away from their monitors to look curiously in the direction of the confrontation.

Unhappy at the sudden attention, the first agent lowered his voice. "It's a matter of national security. That's all I can tell you. As for destination, we're going to the Pentagon."

Dev started slightly. "I'll guess: this involves the alien craft?"

"National security. I can't say anything more." The agent took a breath, sighed it out. "Truthfully, Mr. Mukherjee, the two of us don't know anything more. We're transport; that's all."

Dev nodded and stepped around the desk toward them. Charlie looked alarmed. "What is this? Dev, you don't have to go with these guys!"

"I know." He smiled reassuringly. "But I think I want to. I will call you and Mary tonight, to let you know that everything is okay."

"You'd better." Charlie looked on with concern as the three men started for the elevators, the two visitors flanking his friend. "If I don't hear from you, I'll.…" He broke off.

What would he do?, Charlie wondered. Notify the media? He'd likely lose his position, or at least risk a demotion. He wasn't in Dev's place. Unlike Mukherjee, he had a wife and three kids. Dev wasn't married. As far as Charlie knew, he didn't even have a steady girlfriend. A myriad of thoughts whirlpooled in his head.

Did that lack of extant intimate relationships have anything to do, perhaps, with why the two agents had taken Dev and not him?