It was a beautiful day at the beach, with not a cloud in the sky and just enough wind to temper the burning sun, the piercing cries of seagulls breaking up the heartbeat of waves washing up on hot sand. The meteor shower was just a bonus; nothing like that had been announced, but still they came, strings of silver sparks streaking across the sky. People pointed, watched with binoculars, filmed with their phones, shouts of excitement punctuating the bigger fireballs. But none of them ever came closer than the horizon. For a while, the show seemed to have ended. Then the wind picked up, bringing with it small dark clouds that churned furiously as they raced low over the water. People began to panic, swimmers racing each other ashore while those sunning themselves grabbed their towels and ran. A couple fell off their jet skis, narrowly avoiding one of the clouds that swept close to the shore. For a moment its shape suggested a bird of prey as it hovered above a hastily deserted jetty made slick and wet by the spray. Then it lifted off and sped back out over the water, leaving someone who struggled to stand in the same place.
Among the upturned parasols, three young people, no older than twenty, sat and gaped.
"Was that a twister?" one of the girls asked, bewildered.
"It didn't look like one at all," answered the other one matter-of-factly.
The boy who was with them kept quiet, eyeing the person on the jetty suspiciously. He looked about the same age as the trio, with darker skin, wearing only cargo shorts and sandals, and carrying a satchel. The young man calmly walked up to them as if nothing had happened, carefully picking his way among wind-swept litter.
"May I sit down?" he asked politely.
"Sure!" said the first girl, trying to get the hair out of her eyes for a better look. The other girl echoed her.
"Where did you come from?" asked the boy as the newcomer let himself drop onto the sand. "And don't tell me you survived that thing by hiding among the rocks."
"Be nice, Marcel," his companions admonished.
"No no, you're right," smiled the stranger, flashing perfect white teeth. "I didn't."
"OK," said the more serious girl. "where from, then?"
The young man pointed at the sky, still smiling.
"Are you saying you're from outer space?" the first girl asked again.
Marcel displayed an incredulous grin. "We're supposed to believe that?"
He was answered with a shrug. "You saw me arrive."
"But you look completely human," pointed out the serious one.
"I am completely human," the newcomer said just as seriously. "We have the ability to construct a fully-grown person from scratch, and imprint an existing personality onto them."
"Cool," breathed the first girl, looking at him with big eyes. "So, what's your name? I'm Jeni, this is Veronica. And the jerk over there is Marcel."
"Guess!" the stranger said playfully.
"Silvio? Ahmed? Raj?" added Veronica when the young man hesitated.
"Theodore it is," he replied at length. It had been Jeni's suggestion.
"Cool," she said again, leaning closer to him. "What brings you here, Theodore?"
He winked at her. "The company, of course. It's the first planet with people on it we've encountered in... a long time, really."
"How come you picked us for a first contact?" asked Marcel, with barely contained sarcasm.
"You didn't run away."
Marcel looked around. Stragglers were only now beginning to come back from wherever the earlier wind had chased them off to. In the distance, the strange vortexes still roamed up and down the beach.
"Fair enough," he admitted. "So... fully grown? Does that mean you can make babies, too?"
"Unless I have a manufacturing defect. We didn't test that feature before launch."
"But can you love?" asked Jeni, stretching the last word.
"Oh, definitely!" Theodore livened up. "I've been fitted with the capacity to love anyone."
He was nearly touching Marcel as he said it, smooth skin glistening with perfectly formed drops of sweat, the heat of summer radiating from his body.
"Hey!" exclaimed Marcel, and scurried away. The girls laughed.
"An alien visitation doesn't make sense though," Veronica pointed out. "An interstellar trip would take ages. Literally. By the time you can return home..."
"We don't have a home anymore."
That killed the conversation for a while. A little kid ran past, intent on raising a big kite -- or maybe it was the other way around. A balloon vendor wandered in the opposite direction, holding their straw hat with one hand while wrestling the colorful merchandise with the other.
"Where are my manners?" asked Veronica. She offered a big pack of crackers around. "Want some?"
Theodore accepted a handful and munched gingerly. Jeni poured soda into plastic cups and passed them around.
"So the alien bums are coming to steal our food," Marcel said snarkily, sipping from his. The girls cast him angry looks.
"Maybe I can do something for you in return?" pleaded Theodore. "I don't have any money, but I can work."
"For a glass of soda?" chided Jeni. "Don't be silly. Not that I'd mind someone to come and straighten up my room."
"I was joking."
"Too bad there aren't more of you, Theodore," joked Veronica, elbowing Marcel.
"Ow! I'll clean up my place. One of these days, promise."
"But there are more of us," Theodore said, pointing along the beach. The last of the blurry whirlwinds were dropping off their human-shaped payloads before speeding back out to sea.
Veronica's jaw fell. "You've got to be kidding me. I thought you were kidding. This is some complicated hoax, right? It has to be."
Jeni was looking at him wide-eyed. "Theodore? How many of you are there?"
He shrugged. "How many beaches line the world's oceans?"
Marcel narrowed his eyes. "This is happening all over the world? Right now?"
"Naturally. We don't want to be a burden."
"This isn't a visitation, it's an invasion!" Marcel accused, standing up halfway to point a finger at Theodore. "What do you even have in there, a raygun? Are you going to disintegrate us?"
Theodore looked hurt, the most feeling he'd shown since his arrival. "See for yourself," he said, proffering the satchel to nobody in particular. Jeni accepted it with an apologetic look. She gently unpacked its contents on her blanket: a shirt, a towel, a change of underwear and a journal with two pens. The journal turned out to be blank. None of her friends commented when she started putting it all back in. Theodore knelt to help, and then Marcel was rushing him, fists flying.
He never made it far enough. Blinding light filled his sight, dazzling him, and he landed heavily in the sand. All of a sudden, Theodore was standing just out of reach. They hadn't seen him move. Marcel groaned.
"How did he do that?"
"He didn't," Veronica informed him. "Must have been a kid with a mirror."
"Convenient timing." He squinted at Theodore. "Go back to where you came from! This is our planet! We've been here for millions of years! You're not welcome!"
The other man just stood there, his voice distant. "If I were to embark again now, I would die of old age before the next stop. You're asking me to waste my life in the cold night of space."
"Can't you go into cold sleep or something?" asked Jeni.
He shook his head. "It doesn't work that way."
"Then how did you survive your trip so far?" questioned Veronica.
"By becoming part of the ship itself."
"And now what, you're abandoning it?" she insisted.
"It's long out of warranty. And with all the nuclear missiles pointed at it right this instant, we may not have a ship for much longer."
Jeni watched him with a mix of pity and fear. "What will you do to the world? To us?"
"Nothing much. It's our home now, too. All we want is to live out our lives here. Maybe pass on our knowledge if you let us."
She got up and walked over to him. "I believe you."
Marcel found his feet again too, brushing sand off himself in embarrassment. "I don't feel like staying on the beach anymore."
"Me either," said Veronica. She started getting dressed.
Theodore turned to leave.
"Wait!" called Jeni. "Aren't you coming with us?"
"I'd like to, but..."
"Come on. You need someone to show you around anyway. Do you even know how to cross the street?"
"In theory. It looks dangerous."
Marcel avoided looking at him while they packed. He examined the sand, the crowd milling about as if nothing had happened, the sky and sea that were so calm again.
Far out on the horizon, rocket exhaust trails climbed diagonally into the sky. Five, fifteen, too many to count. Distant thunder rolled from the clear blue above them.
They went up the stairs into town together.
Bucharest, 8 March 2016