Samer’s eyes refused to work. Perhaps because the night before they’d melted, oozed down his face, and formed a congealed puddle next to his textbooks. The perils of pulling an all-nighter.
Fortunately—but regrettably—this wasn’t the first time. He squeezed his eyelids shut, and through the magic of willpower, his eyes reconstituted themselves.
He found himself slumped over a desk near the back of a lecture hall. A place he knew all too well.
A vibration stung his thigh, causing him to spasm. Again? He grimaced and left the offending device consigned to his pocket. The stupid phone hadn’t stopped buzzing the whole morning. His former teammates had lost their third game in a row and, in their desolation, had chosen to bombard him with pleas to rejoin the team. Not happening. But that didn’t make him feel any better about ignoring them.
An old visualization came to mind. A set of scales, labeled Samer’s Sanity, teetering dangerously to the side titled Guilt. Then, a weight titled Basketball Team materialized in the sky, then dropped on one side with a resplendent clang. It was too much. The scales tilted and crashed, sending up a plume of dust.
Hold it together, Samer. He thumbed the silence toggle on his phone.
However, in an act of defiance, it continued to shake, insistent. A modicum of unease unfolded in Samer’s stomach. The last time his phone had behaved so demandingly, it was paramedics trying to reach his mother’s emergency contact. Concern washed his tiredness and annoyance away, and he scrambled to fish his phone from his pocket.
A cacophony of buzzing spread throughout the lecture hall. Any conversations taking place halted.
It’s all of us? He reviewed the all-caps, white-lettered notification splashed across his phone’s display. Tune in immediately for an announcement from the president.
What is it this time? A knot clenched in Samer’s gut. A stifling tension descended on the room, reinforced by the gasps of his fellow students. Emergency alerts these days were all too frequent, but a direct message from the leader of the free world came with an extra dose of foreboding. Samer usually did his best to avoid the news, finding it depressing and distracting, but that wasn’t much help if the news came to him.
A few clicks from the pale-faced professor and an image materialized on the whiteboard: the president, her eyes commanding and her brow glistening with a light sheen of sweat.
“My fellow Americans. Citizens of the world who may be listening. I thank you for your time and attention. My administration brings you urgent news. Please know that I do not share this information lightly.”
The president paused, outwardly steeling herself. Her next words would be remembered for eternity. “We are not alone. I can confirm that intelligent life outside of Earth exists.”
Samer’s vision dissolved into spots as blood rushed to his head. The lecture hall swam around him. He’d loved science fiction stories since childhood, but he’d never imagined a world where his daydreams could become reality. This must be a dream, right? He willed his brain to wake up, expecting to find his cheek smashed into textbooks and the golden glow of a desk lamp above him.
It didn’t work. He lightly smacked his cheek. Nope, nothing. The realization sank in. Aliens are real.
The president had continued speaking. He wrenched his attention back toward the screen. “The proof is incontrovertible. An emissary has arrived. On Earth. The being . . . forgive me, he goes by the name Tar. Editor Tar, to use the title by which he calls himself.”
She paused to take a sip of water. Cavernous silence engulfed the classroom. Samer gripped his desk, white-knuckled. This further revelation staggered him even more. Aliens as an abstract, distant concept? Sure. Everybody would lose their minds, but life as normal would go on. But a living, breathing one, who had already stepped foot on the same soil that Samer now occupied? Utterly and completely mind-boggling. His brain generated a million questions all at once. One swiftly rose to the top, flashing in giant red letters: are we all about to die?
Samer’s chest tightened as raw fear surged within him. He knew the drill. Within days, Earth would be ruined, patrolled by flying squids incinerating anything in their path. He’d desperately search for his mother and sister, creeping through collapsed buildings and accompanied by a stray dog he’d named Lucky.
Be logical, Samer. If the alien wanted us dead, we’d already be dead.
His pulse slowed by a small amount, and he took a deep lungful of stale classroom air. The scene around him settled back into place. The president’s brow had grown more furrowed and belied her steadfast tone. “Editor Tar has committed no aggressive actions and assured us he means us no harm. He’s asked for a forum through which to present himself, to all of humanity at once. After careful consideration by myself and other world leaders, we’ve decided to grant his request. Please stand by.” The feed cut to black.
Samer’s pulse shot up again. He couldn’t tell if he was excited or terrified—most likely a mixture of both. A new image appeared, and to Samer's astonishment, rather than enormous flashing light devices set up to bridge the communication divide, the set of a morning talk show came into focus.
On a chair, center stage, sat the alien.
Okay. He doesn’t look so bad. There were no tentacles. Or laser guns. Or tin robots with murderous grins.
If anything, the alien looked deceptively human. He was humanoid in shape, with all the usual limbs and a recognizable assortment of facial features. His gunmetal-gray skin and hairless, ridged skull clearly marked him as not from Earth, but he’d also dressed in human clothing: a tailored leather suit the color of wizened tree bark, as well as knee-high, silver-tipped snakeskin boots. A veritable (fashionable?) galactic cowboy.
Samer’s curiosity sparked. He knew shoes. Every extra penny he’d scraped together went toward buying the latest style, for which his mother and sister gave him endless grief. These boots exuded extravagance. They hugged the alien’s calves, dark and shapely. They told a story. Samer wanted to know what.
As if noticing his gaze, the alien shifted and demurely crossed his legs. Samer shivered, the self-assured quality of the movement sending goose bumps down his spine.
Tar’s azure-colored eyes snapped to the camera. Samer held his breath in nervous anticipation.
Tar lifted a gloved hand, palm forward. “I’ve been told to use the words ‘Greetings, I come in peace,’ but let me try something different. Hello. As your leaders have informed you, you may kindly call me Editor Tar. My home planet, Xarlogia, is thousands of light-years away. Thank you for welcoming me to your planet. It’s a real thrill to be here and begin what I hope will be a deep, enriching relationship with your kind.” He spoke with no trouble, the timbre of his voice resonant and rich and full of vigor. The alien’s words struck a chord in Samer’s soul. His fear further dissipated.
Tar glanced to his side as the well-known host of the show stepped onto the stage, then took a seat facing Tar. She wore a forced, if enthusiastic, smile and tilted her body backward more than looked natural.
Tar moved the ends of his mouth in an upward curve. A smile. It suited his face well, smoothing out the sharpness of his bone structure. His black lips parted to reveal glimmering metallic teeth, like silver ore gleaming in a dark cave. Samer pictured himself rappelling down them, one tooth at a time.
Tar gave a modest wave with one hand and held out the other. The host’s smile slipped. She froze, gears visibly turning within her mind. Tar kept his hand outstretched, firmly in position. At last, the host lifted her own arm, and the two exchanged a perfunctory handshake. After, she splayed her fingers out and examined them but then noticed what she was doing and quickly clasped her hands in her lap.
Samer exhaled noisily. Trial passed. He found it curious the alien had initiated the handshake. He’d prepared for this encounter.
The host invited Tar to share his story. How did he come to find Earth? What was the purpose of his visit? Samer eagerly anticipated the answers, like nothing in his life before.
Tar grinned broadly and turned in his chair to face the camera. “Oh, I happened to be in the neighborhood. Granted, a couple dozen light-years away, but I found the myriad of signals your planet broadcasts intriguing. I couldn’t help but listen in, and I quickly developed a deep and abiding affection for your species. You live such vibrant lives, facing down difficult choices at every turn, but always remaining proud and resilient. You as a people are bold and determined and clearly hunger for advancement. In my assessment, you are a civilization destined for greatness.”
He extended an open palm out and moved it across the screen. “I never wavered in my decision to approach Earth. I will help your world progress however I can. It should serve as no surprise that there’s quite the universe out there awaiting you. I know the value of a guide that can ensure that Earth remains protected and prosperous as you take further steps into exploring the great beyond.”
He pointed up, as if to the heavens, and Samer could see it all in front of him. Humanity answering its calling to live among the stars. Tar standing proudly at their side, the benevolent alien uncle. It was an inviting image.
Tar stood and gently opened his jacket, as if to forestall the audience’s concern about mysterious objects in coats. He pulled out two small items. “To demonstrate my good faith, let me show you a little of what I bring with me.”
In his right hand, he held a long, thin glass cylinder. Samer squinted. A champagne flute?
Tar lightly tapped the stem. Golden liquid began to rise from the bottom. From nowhere. Once filled, he handed the glass to the host. She swirled it, pursing her lips, then took a sip. A second ticked by before she gave a more relaxed smile and exclaimed that it tasted wonderful.
Tar nodded approvingly. He then held out the second object, a toy-sized spinning wheel. Yellow straw rested on the spindle. With a flick of his finger, the wheel whirred, and the straw spun and disappeared. In its place, a filament of gold emerged.
Samer gasped, echoed by others in the classroom. A fairy tale come to life.
Tar took a theatrical bow, evidently not held back by the lack of in-person audience. Samer caught a hint of a calculating expression on the visitor’s face. It wasn’t a difficult leap to speculate that Tar made this demonstration with the specific purpose of appealing to humanity’s aspirations of wealth and extravagance. He was planting the seeds. What was this all a prelude to?
Tar handed the gold thread to the host, who held it aloft, her eyes widened in shock. “I must say, humanity inspires me. Even with your species being as young as you are, you have cultivated such a rich abundance of culture and lore.” He pointed to the items held by the host. “These are only but baubles. More to come, I promise.”
Tar returned to his chair. He stroked his chin, looking more subdued, except for the spark in his deep-set eyes. “There is one additional avenue of cooperation which I’d like to mention.”
Samer tensed. Here it comes.
“I come from an intergalactic body called the Liberated Collective. My role as Editor is to select and sponsor individuals to compete in a prestigious intergalactic fighting competition. It would be my absolute pleasure to bestow this honor upon a few handpicked members of your species. I can only take on a small group, but I vow to fully support these future champions so that they might earn riches and rewards and help usher Earth into its new era. I look forward to initiating my recruitment drive soon.”
Samer flinched in surprise, his suspicions subsiding. That actually sounds . . . amazing. The thought of outer space filled him with a mixture of awe and yearning. Could he be part of that vanguard, one of the first humans to journey into the final frontier?
Reality sank in. That was an easy one. Impossible. Even if I were chosen, I can’t leave.
The alien stood and made his exit, flanked by Secret Service. A cavalcade of news anchors, pundits, and politicians appeared after, all expressing various degrees of shock and disbelief. Not one suggested that Tar represented a hostile threat.
Samer’s attention drifted as he tried to sort through the morning’s heavy assortment of emotions. Tar wasn’t what he expected—and it seemed everybody else agreed. He looked around and observed that his classmates appeared relaxed, excited even. Tar had capably put his captivated viewers around the world at ease. Samer wondered what to make of it all. Especially those boots.