The Return by Joseph Helmreich will appeal to anyone who has ever wondered … what’s out there? (Available March 14, 2017.)
During a live television broadcast on the night of a lunar eclipse, renowned astrophysicist Andrew Leland is suddenly lifted into the sky by a giant spacecraft and taken away for all to see. Six years later, he turns up, wandering in a South American desert, denying ever having been abducted and disappearing from the public eye.
Meanwhile, he inspires legions of cultish devotees, including a young physics graduate student named Shawn Ferris who is obsessed with finding out what really happened to him. When Shawn finally tracks Leland down, he discovers that he’s been on the run for years, continuously hunted by a secret organization that has pursued him across multiple continents, determined to force him into revealing what he knows.
Shawn soon joins Leland on the run. Though Leland is at first reluctant to reveal anything, Shawn will soon learn the truth about his abduction, the real reason for his return, and will find himself caught up in a global conspiracy that puts more than just one planet in danger.
If the conspiracy theorists are right and it never happened, then the day it didn’t happen began innocently enough. The night before had yielded little morning news, and, in fact, it had been a slow news week in general. A conservative mayor somewhere in Indiana had accidentally outed himself through a risqué text message sent to the wrong aide. Several dozen people had been buried in an earthquake in La Viña, Chile, a city few people in the United States could name, let alone empathize with. An up-and-coming pitcher for the Dodgers had been caught cheating on his wife, whom he turned out to be estranged from, anyway. In short, watercoolers across the country were, if anything, quieter than usual that afternoon. The calm before the storm.
Still, almost any story would have been preferable to the one Bill Allenby found himself saddled with that Tuesday, a lunar eclipse that would be taking place from around 8:35 to 9:35 P.M., PST. Roy Hanson, his ineffectual producer, had explained that it had been several hundred years since an eclipse had occurred on the occasion of a winter solstice, making this what experts liked to term a “rare celestial event.” To Allenby’s mind, that hardly made it worth dragging a whole crew up to Bernasconi Hills, which was expected to offer the best views of the sky in the Southern California area. And what exactly was he supposed to talk to Andrew Leland about, and where the hell was Leland, anyway?
“Celestial events” were not what Allenby had gotten into journalism for, and Hanson knew that. But several months earlier, a segment in which he had badly mispronounced the name of German philosopher Immanuel Kant had gone viral, and he was still paying the price. Though no one ever said so explicitly, until that embarrassing flub was fully lived down, high-profile trips to dangerous war zones and coveted interviews with world leaders would have to wait. For now, someone like Dr. Andrew Leland was probably a good catch. And not even the Leland of the late ’90s, either, who’d been hailed as the heir apparent to Stephen Hawking, but the watered-down Hollywoodized Leland of today, a notorious self-promoter whose name was more likely to be found in the pages of Entertainment Weekly than Scientific American.
“Easy near the eyes,” Andrew Leland requested as an attractive young woman applied foundation to his cheeks and forehead inside the hair and makeup tent.
“Well, if you kept them closed like I asked, this would be a whole lot easier,” she said.
“If I close them, I can’t see your pretty face.”
She rolled her eyes.
“What’s your name?”
“Maureen, I’m Andrew.”
“I know who you are. My husband used to watch your show on the Discovery Channel.”
“So he was the one!”
She smiled and removed a lint brush from a table.
“Your husband’s a man of science?”
“He’s a man of TV,” she answered, applying the brush to Leland’s sports jacket. “Course he thinks he’s a poet. The next Pablo Neruda, he says. I don’t even know who that is.”
“Me, neither, but I’m actually something of a poet myself. Except I don’t deal with words; I deal with numbers and laws. Equations. You might call me a poet of the universe.”
She smiled. “I might call you full of shit.”
“That right? Here, I’ll write something special for you right now you can keep.”
He removed a pen and small ticket stub from his pocket and jotted something down on the back, then handed it to her.
“What is it?” she asked, staring at the ten digits he’d scrawled there.
“A rare series of numbers unique in all of math and science. I call it the ‘Leland Sequence.’ If you’re ever in the Silver Lake area, feel free to bring it along and use it.”
She arched an eyebrow, shook her head with mock reproach, and quickly shoved the phone number into her purse.
As production assistants and interns pitched tents into the hard, uncooperative earth, Bill Allenby paced back and forth, going over in his head the questions he’d be asking Leland. He still wasn’t sure why they’d gone with a physicist instead of an astronomer, but then who ever heard of a famous astronomer in the twenty-first century, and Roy Hanson was a sucker for talking heads anyone might recognize. Meanwhile, about forty feet from the edge of the cliff where the interview would be taking place, Hanson and several uniformed young men were guiding the camera crew on usage of the Astral HDR-8K, a sophisticated new camera that had been loaned from the U.S. Naval Observatory and would be able to capture both Allenby and Leland, on the one hand, and the celestial imagery taking place in the sky behind them, on the other, with equal clarity. Allenby watched for a few moments, noting how hard Hanson was pretending to be in control, while obviously letting the naval officers do all the work.
Allenby then stepped toward the edge of the precipice and gazed out on the vista. From where he stood, he could see the imposing black silhouettes of the San Gabriels and Bernardinos in the far distance, the twinkling lights of Fontana, the winding roads that snake their way from Moreno Valley back to Los Angeles, all of this somewhat less visible tonight, but illuminated nonetheless by the stars and the portion of the moon no longer in shadow.
Jesus, he thought to himself. He was forty-five years old, hardworking, extremely ambitious, intelligent. If he was no Anderson Cooper, he could carry himself well enough in an expensive suit. And here he was covering the fucking moon!
“Up yours, Kant,” he muttered to himself, mispronouncing the name again, this time on purpose.
At 9:25, as the segment producer called out “Stand by,” Allenby and Leland got themselves into position, moving to where the moon, now a burning orange-red, would be visible directly behind and above them.
“And now we go live to Bill Allenby, on location in Bernasconi Hills, watching the sky as the moon is just about to exit the eclipse,” his colleague Tammy Simon informed viewers from their studio in downtown LA.
The segment producer gave him the signal.
“Thank you, Tammy,” Allenby began, staring into the surprisingly clunky-looking Astral HDR-8K. “That’s right, the moon is about four minutes from exiting the eclipse, and standing with me now is celebrated physicist and recent author of A Little More Space, Dr. Andrew Leland. We thank him for being here, and we also want to thank the U.S. Naval Observatory for lending us the extraordinary camera we’re shooting with tonight.”
He turned to Leland. “Now, Dr. Leland, what can you tell us about the significance of tonight’s eclipse?”
Leland smiled warmly. “Well, first of all, Bill, I would just like to say that it is a great pleasure to be on your program, and thank you very much for having me.”
“Pleasure’s ours,” Allenby responded.
“Tonight’s eclipse, Bill, is taking place on the occasion of the winter solstice. That means Earth’s tilt is at its maximum distance from the sun, about twenty-three degrees toward the plane of its rotation.”
“And it’s the shortest day of the year, is that right?”
“The shortest day and the longest night, yes. But a lunar eclipse on a winter solstice is really a very special thing. In fact, the last time these two phenomena coincided was back in 1638.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes. Back then, certain primitive societies actually believed that eclipses meant the moon was being swallowed by some sort of giant creature. A large snake or maybe a kind of outer space whale. There’s a tradition in Iraq to that effect.”
“Remarkable,” Allenby replied, bored but glad Leland had done his homework. “And I see that the moon is still a kind of orangish hue. Could you explain why that is?”
“Well, Bill, you see, the red-orange color is the result of sunlight being filtered through our planet’s pretty dusty atmosphere.”
“Fascinating,” Allenby remarked, just barely trying to sound sincere.
Several moments of more scientific elucidation followed, until, as the clock struck 9:37, the final bit of shadow lifted off the moon, leaving it once again whole and near to its familiar gray-white color.
“Wow! So that’s it?” Allenby asked, staring up at the moon.
“Yep, that’s the whole show!” Leland replied. “And I sure hope you invite me back for the next one in 2094. Actually, in A Little More Space, there’s a section that, though it doesn’t relate directly—”
While normally Allenby might have been annoyed by Leland’s sudden stab at self-promotion, he was at this moment distracted by something in the sky.
“Dr. Leland,” he interrupted, his eyes on the moon. “Sorry, but that sort of green speck on the moon where the shadow had just been—what’s that?”
(And it is here, at this question, that most versions of Bill Allenby’s second and much more famous viral video begin.)
Leland looked up, squinted. The green speck that Allenby had pointed out appeared to be moving. The physicist watched a little longer, then shook his head. “No, that’s not on the moon. Much closer. Maybe an airplane.”
But it wasn’t an airplane.
Lloyd Bruno, a cameraman with the show for over eight years, had little understanding of the fancy piece of machinery he was operating that night. Because of union regulations, the naval officers had been barred from operating the Astral HDR-8K themselves, and Lloyd had done his best to learn on the fly. Later, he would tell people that he at first thought the green dot that seemed to be getting larger and larger in the background was some kind of trick of the camera, a play of light, maybe a lens flare.
In interviews for years to come, he would describe how Bill Allenby and the crew had fled from the spot as quickly as their legs could carry them, while Dr. Leland had just stood there, frozen as though in shock, staring up and out at the oncoming light.
He would describe how he, himself, forty-eight years old with a wife and two kids, had ultimately decided to run, how he had grabbed the hand of Maureen Cruz, a panicked young makeup artist, and how they had rushed down a trail of cragged rock and dirt, not looking back, while most others around them did the same.
Bruno would be correct to say that Bill Allenby initially fled. But unlike Bruno, Allenby didn’t actually leave the scene. Rather, as he would later detail at lectures and fund-raisers and countless media award ceremonies, he, along with several of the naval officers and some brave members of his crew, crouched behind a production tent and did his best to watch from there. It is hard to know what Allenby or these other eyewitness accounts would have amounted to had Lloyd Bruno not left the Astral running. As it stands, their testimony serves mainly to verify the authenticity of the images that were captured by that camera and witnessed by the public.
The image of Leland, standing still, facing the expansive view and staring up at the stars. The image of the strange and brightly lit green structure moving over the mountains in the distance and toward the cliff side, toward Leland, with breathtaking speed. Of Leland being lifted up into the air by some unseen force and over the edge of the cliff, surrounded on all sides by a haze of green coruscating light.
Finally, the last bit of footage captured by the Astral camera and watched by 1.6 million residents of Los Angeles that night and over 150 million people in the next two weeks and billions more over the next several years, the image of Dr. Andrew Leland, washed-up celebrity physicist, rising higher and higher into the night sky.
Copyright © 2017 Joseph Helmreich.
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Joseph Helmreich, author of The Return, has contributed writing to Every Day Fiction and New York Press. He has worked on film and television projects, such as Garden State, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, before becoming a script-reader for The Weinstein Company. In addition to his writing, Helmreich is also a voice-over actor and member of alternative folk duo, Honeybrick. He lives in New York City and works in film distribution.