I’m late for the most important meeting of my life. Sweat beads on my forehead as I click down the hallway in my uncomfortable yet professional heels, wishing against rationality itself that I could be magically transported to the Oval Office. This is the biggest opportunity I’ve ever been given, a chance almost never offered to an intern, and I’m going to mess it up.
The heel on my right shoe feels wobbly, and I grimace at how perfectly fucked up it would be if it broke off right now. Knowing my luck, I almost expect it to happen, but I make it, shoes intact. The bodyguard outside the office glances at his watch as he sees me, not to actually check the time but to let me know what a screw-up I am.
I roll my eyes at him, about to make a sarcastic comment when everything stops.
The lights go out, which I thought was an impossibility in a building where the backup generators probably have backup generators. I fish my phone from my suit pocket and glance at it out of instinct, but the screen is blank. Even pressing the ‘on’ button does nothing. It’s dead, though just a few minutes ago it was at least at sixty-nine percent charged. I remember that because I have the sense of humor of a twelve-year-old boy, and laughed when I saw the number.
The guard frowns and taps his earpiece, then pulls out a walkie-talkie and pushes buttons. I hold my breath as I watch, waiting for a crackle, some static, something. But everything is silent.
Guards hurtle down the hallway toward the president’s office, and I stand back, as flat as I can against the wall to let them pass. My heart’s pounding hard. Something’s going on, and I have a terrifying feeling it’s bigger than anyone can even anticipate right now. A terrorist attack? Nuclear bombs headed our way from North Korea or someone else that hates us?
Whispered voices combine from all directions, creating a loud noise against which I hear one of the heads of security announce that the building is on lockdown. Nobody can enter or leave. We’re also ordered to be silent.
Still standing against the wall, with shaking hands, I pull out my phone again, pressing the ‘on’ button, then holding it for a long time. I even pop off the back, remove the battery and reinsert it, but nothing works. It’s completely nonfunctional.
Minutes later, a swarm of armed men and women leave the Oval Office, the president in the center. I assume he’s being taken to some special hidden bunker somewhere, and for a second I’m pissed. What makes him so important that he’s offered protection, but the rest of us aren’t? I mean yes. Obviously the fact that he’s president of the United States carries weight. But at the end of the day, he’s just a human being like everyone else, isn’t he?
“Nobody move. Stay exactly where you are and wait for further instructions.” The security head is speaking on what sounds like a megaphone. Normally, announcements like this would come through the sound system, but if all power is cut, it makes sense that the communications systems would be down too.
The stupidest thought occurs to me: if shit is going down, why does it have to happen when I’m in the most impractical shoes ever? I roll my eyes. Just my luck. I mean, this is all probably some kind of false alarm, right? Still, I’d feel better if I were wearing running shoes, or at least flats. One of my pet peeves when I’m watching any sort of action or horror movie is when the heroine needs to escape, and she’s flailing around in stilettos. Now? That could be me.
From down the hall, someone screams, a lone sound that echoes for a few seconds, before being joined by shrieks and yells of dozens more voices. What’s going on?
Even though we were all told to stay still, my usual sense of adventure and rebelliousness, and my newfound thought process of if the world is ending, why bother following instructions takes over, and I slide along the wall down the corridor toward the noises. It’s daytime, but the halls are dark, and everyone’s panicking, so nobody pays attention to an intern who’s not doing what she’s been told.
I make my way toward the central lobby, where people are crowded near the windows, pointing at something outside. Some are edging away, others huddled against the wall, as though kneeling with your arms over your head is going to save your life.
I need to see what’s going on. Pressing in the crowd gathered at the window, I stand on tiptoe to see over the shoulders of the mostly male group—there’s still a large discrepancy between the number of men and women in politics—and try to get a good look.
I cough out a breath as I see what’s on the White House lawn. It’s what I can only imagine is a spaceship, because I’ve never seen anything like it before. Silver and oblong, about half the size of a football field, it hovers completely still about five feet above the ground. It’s surrounded by glimmering waves, sort of like the way asphalt seems to shimmer on really hot days. Or like the rounded, rainbow-y sphere of a bubble.
Yet those waves, whatever they are, provide some sort of indelible shield, because despite the fact that U.S. Army soldiers are shooting at it, nothing’s happening.
I back away a few steps; being near a window when bullets are flying outside surely isn’t a good idea, but nobody else seems to care. I guess seeing aliens—or whatever is inside that thing—is worth risking your life.
“Wait. Oh, my god,” somebody mutters, and I turn back. The ship opens, where no outline of a door was apparent before, and a huge bubble-shaped object floats out and lands on the ground. It’s made of the same shimmery protective substance that’s surrounding the ship, but I can see that someone’s inside it.
When the bubble shape is on the ground, the person or creature inside begins to walk, upright like a human. As with the ship itself, bullets do not penetrate the surface, and when some of the soldiers approach, trying to form a human shield to stop it from traveling any closer to the White House, they fly off it, as though they’ve been hit with a huge electric shock that leaves them inert on the ground. I hope they’re not dead.
I consider my options as the bubble with the alien moves closer. I should get out of here. But I’m fairly certain all exits are locked. Nobody enters or leaves. People around me are starting to panic, running away from the windows and down the hallways, vacating the lobby where it looks like the thing is approaching.
But I’m struck dumb. My legs are locked in place. I’m terrified yet transfixed. And surely it isn’t me the alien is looking for. It’s at the White House for a reason, and a lowly intern’s not a big enough draw.
The alien is coming closer to the front door. Through the window I watch, and now it’s close enough that I can see it’s a he, or looks like one. I’m surprised at how humanoid he is. Probably over six feet tall, he has two arms and legs, and his proportions are roughly that of a human male, though a very muscular one. He walks like a human too, but an incredibly confident—or cocky—one.
His skin is different, though. Silvery, with an almost purplish tint, it shimmers slightly, though maybe that’s just a reflection from the bubble thing that surrounds him. His face is human—two eyes, nose, mouth. And though I realize it’s a super crazy thought to have in this situation, I’m struck by how good looking he is. You know, for an alien. His expression is one of complete confidence, his dark eyes, they look blue from here, ice cold yet intelligent. His nose strong and chiseled, like someone had carved it out of stone. His lips firm, thick, and unyielding, the kind of face that looks so composed yet simultaneously angry I can’t help wondering what it would look like if he smiled.
His hair looks black, but the longer I stare at it, the more I see that it’s really a dark, dark blue, cut short.
He’s not wearing a shirt, and I can tell he’s strong, muscles prominent on his chest and stomach, his arms bulging as he advances toward the White House. His pants are dark colored, and he’s wearing some sort of boots that look like they’re made for a rugged hike or to kick some serious ass.
And he’s unarmed. Of course, he doesn’t need to be, since he’s got that strange essence around him for protection. I wonder how it works. And I wonder how his ship landed here without any prior warning. Didn’t we see it as it entered the solar system? Aren’t there scientists and military personnel constantly keeping track of our airspace?
My heart thumps as the alien approaches the front doors, which magically open for him, as though they’re those sensor opening doors at the grocery store rather than the entrance to the White House.
The few people who are left in the lobby go silent as we wait, breath bated, to see what happens next.
The alien enters the building. As he approaches, the bubble around him is less obvious, though the air retains a rainbow-y hue, reminding me that he’s protected. He’s about fifteen feet from me now, and I can barely breathe as I look at him, unable to understand that this is actually happening. I’m here, in the same room with what’s ostensibly an alien. From another planet. This is sheer science fiction, happening right in front of my eyes. And in the form of a drop-dead handsome creature.
Well, if we’re going to be invaded by an alien species, at least we got good-looking ones. Okay, not funny. I get it. But sometimes when I’m nervous, I make stupid jokes. Though in this case I’m not totally joking around.
A man in a suit approaches the alien, but stays just outside range of the bubble, obviously having witnessed what happened to the soldiers who touched it outside. Soldiers point guns at the creature, but nobody shoots: clearly they know it’s useless at this point.
The man holds up his hand in greeting to the alien, whose gaze is fixed upon him. “Hello. I’m Charles Nantucket, head of the Department for Extraterrestrial Research for the U.S. Government.”
I had no idea such a department existed.
The alien speaks, his voice loud and deep, and with the hint of an accent I can’t quite place, probably because it’s not from anywhere on Earth. “I am here to see the president.”
“We are currently setting up a meeting,” replies Charles Nantucket, rubbing his clean-shaven jaw. Nobody around here has any scruff. “And I assure you that if you cooperate with us, you will not be harmed.”
When the alien answers, there is more than a touch of humor in his voice, like he’s trying to suppress real laughter. “It’s not possible for you to harm me. My shield is impervious to any human weapons. But I am willing to cooperate, as long as I do not feel there is a threat to me or my team on the ship.”
“So there are more of you here?” Nantucket raises an eyebrow.
“It would be foolish—and quite lonely—for me to travel alone.” The alien’s voice is calm, yet there is something commanding about it.
“Would you be willing to sit down with myself and some others to discuss the, er, situation?” asks Nantucket.
“Quite willing. I didn’t come, after all, to sightsee.”
“And the… power? All our communications and electrical systems are shut down.” Nantucket waves his hand in the air. “You are responsible?”
“Indeed. Just a small sample of what we can do. We will restore it provided some conditions are met.”
Nantucket clears his throat. “Please, come with me?” He gestures down the hallway, where, somewhere, a meeting must have been quickly planned. I would love to sit in on it, but of course I won’t be invited. I’m a nobody.
But as the alien passes by me, following Nantucket and, in turn, followed by a horde of armed military, he looks at me. And something happens. An energy begins in my stomach, spreading throughout every inch of my body, warm and electric and like nothing I’ve felt before in my life. I’m frozen in place, unable to move or do anything at all except stare back into his eyes.
I was right about them: dark, dark blue. His gaze continues to hold me under his command, the feeling visceral, heat coursing through my veins. I take in his face, chiseled and strong jaw, masculine nose, lips that look like they’d be really good at…
And then he looks away. Weak, I breathe out quickly.
He turns and proceeds down the hall, and I sink onto the floor, unable to stand on my shaking legs. What just happened? And why can’t I stop thinking about his chest? Those muscles. And the sudden raise of an eyebrow as he stared at me, savage yet filled with surprise, like he didn’t anticipate the reaction I’d have to him. Did he feel it too?
“We’re moving everyone to another section of the building,” commands an officer, and I force myself to stand and listen to further instructions. “Follow me. Let’s go. Now.”
I manage to summon the energy to follow the rest of the people down the hallway.
They round us all up and bring us to the Mess, the White House cafeteria, though ‘cafeteria’ doesn’t come close to doing it justice at all. It’s fancy, with gorgeous linens and fine china. We all just sit wherever, some at tables, some in folding chairs set up randomly throughout the room to accommodate everyone. Bottles of water are distributed, and I take one, realizing I’m thirsty. But despite the fact that I skipped both breakfast and lunch, I’m too keyed up to be the least bit hungry.
A group of senators are talking in hushed voices, and part of me wants to get in closer to listen, but another part of me just wants to space out. It’s not like they know what’s going on anyway. Nobody does. Except that alien who marched right in, through a hailstorm of bullets, like he owns the place.
I check my phone again, but it’s as dead as before. The thing won’t even turn on. I wonder if the meeting with Nantucket is taking place in the Situation Room or another room. I wonder if the president is there yet, or if he’s stowed away in his safe bunker somewhere. Mostly, I wonder what that feeling was that coursed through me when the alien looked into my eyes. I can’t even compare it to anything else in my life because it was so completely different and unique, it didn’t even feel like a human sensation.
We’re there for at least an hour. I sit on the floor with my back against the wall and close my eyes, letting the excited words of everyone else drift in and out of my head, but everyone’s speculation is making me weary, and I just want to go home and take a very long, very deep nap. If only the future of the entire world wasn’t at stake.
The door opens and a woman clears her throat. I recognize her as Evelyn Cartright, one of the president’s advisors. “Andrea Cavalas?” she articulates, scanning the room.
That’s me. What in the world does she want with me?
I stand up, frowning, and start walking toward her. “I’m Andrea.”
She looks me up and down then nods. “Come with me, please.”
Aware that everyone is staring and whispering, I follow Evelyn out of the Mess, the door shutting behind us.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“We’ll talk in a minute.” Her pace is brisk as she strides down the hallway to an office I’ve never been in, though that’s not unusual considering that the White House is huge, and I’ve never been in most of it. She opens the door and gestures for me to enter.
Sitting around a table are two more of the president’s top advisors, Nantucket, and the president himself. He stands as I enter and walks to me, extending his hand.
I take it and shake. “Andrea Cavalas,” I say, unsure whether he remembers my name or not. I expect he has more important things to keep track of.
“Yes. I know. Have a seat, please.” He gestures at an empty chair and I sit. Evelyn does too.
I look around expectantly, my heart hammering. I have a feeling what I’m about to hear is going to be stunning, and I’m dying to know what they want with me.
The president clears his throat and runs a hand through his white-gray hair, then shuts his eyes for a moment as though trying to find the right words. When he opens them again he stares at me. I’ve never seen such a serious expression on anyone’s face. Ever.
“Today something completely unexpected has occurred, as I’m sure you know. We have what, from all angles, appears to be an invasion by an alien species.”
“Invasion is a bit of an extrapolation…” begins Nantucket.
The president raises a hand to silence him. “We have at least one alien visitor, and possibly more in the ship, though it’s impossible so far for us to get within a few feet of the craft.”
I nod, not sure where he’s going with this.
“We, uh, are unprepared for this. The craft was able to enter our airspace completely undetected. The alien, who says his name in English would be Talon, has informed us that their ship is able to, well, sort of disappear, for minutes at a time. It’s a technology that is far beyond anything we’ve developed.”
One of the advisors leans over and whispers into the president’s ear.
“Ah, it doesn’t matter right now.” The president shakes his head. “She’s already involved. She’s going to need some details and information. It’s the least we can offer her.” He turns back to me. “What Talon says is they are here to forge a peaceful relationship with humans. They claim not to want anything but an alliance, or friendship. They want to bring a human ambassador back to their planet to show the human what their planet is like and to help negotiate peace.”
I frown and nod. I’m still not sure why he’s talking to me about this. Maybe they want my help writing up contracts? They did bring me in for this internship, after all, based on my studies but also my writing skills.
“Which is why you’re here,” says Evelyn, turning to me.
“What’s why I’m here?” I’m not getting it.
She takes a deep breath. “It seems that when Talon entered the building, he saw you and decided you would be the perfect ambassador to return to his planet with him. For a temporary period of time only.”
“Wait. What?” My eyes open wide as I sit forward and stare at her.
She nods. “I know. This is… mind-boggling for all of us. This entire day, this entire encounter… And trust us when we say we’ll do everything we can to assure your safety, though since this is completely unheard of up until this point, we can’t promise…”
“You’re saying you want me to go to another planet with an alien who suddenly appeared on Earth? Can’t someone else go? Someone with more, I don’t know, experience in negotiations? Or maybe a scientist of some sort? I have absolutely no background in anything related…”
Evelyn shakes her head. “He, Talon, said in no uncertain terms that it had to be you.”
I squeeze my eyes shut, dizziness flooding my head. When I open them, Evelyn’s face shows a mixture of sympathy but firmness. “And if I refuse?”
“If you don’t go, Talon says he will refuse to turn back the power, which, if he’s telling the truth, has impacted every single electronic or gas-powered machine in the entire United States. Every form of communications has been shut down. Which, I’m sure you can see, puts us in a very precarious position in regards to the rest of the world.”
Oh, my god. Is this really happening?
“For example,” continue Evelyn, “just to illustrate how vital it is that we get our electronics and comms up and running again as soon as possible, we are completely unable to monitor our airspace at this moment. Our own planes, of course, are grounded. But if enemy planes or missiles come close, we have no way of knowing until they’re within eyesight. The ramifications of that could be absolutely catastrophic. And that’s just one example of how crippled we are as a nation right now.”
“But…” I don’t even know what I want to ask. “Will it be safe? Will I be able to breathe there? Or survive the trip? How long will it take? I can’t… I don’t…” Tears of frustration and fear threaten to surface, but there’s no way I’m going to cry in front of the president and his top advisors.
The president speaks now, and the sympathy in his eyes looks genuine. “We have our top scientists talking to Talon right now. So far he’s assured us that from the studies they’ve done on their planet, humans are so close biologically to them that there shouldn’t be any issues.”
“But we don’t know for sure! We won’t know for sure until I get there. And what if the air there is, you know, the wrong composition or something? I could die!”
Nobody says anything. Their eyes tell me the truth. Death is a very real possibility for me right now. But I don’t see any other option.
The president leans over, his elbows on the table as he stares at me. “You can say no, Andrea. You are free to make your own decision. But know that the future of the United States rests on your shoulders right now. You alone can save this great country. And we would forever be indebted to you for your service if you agree to participate in this mission.”
I take a deep breath before responding. “When do I leave?”
He hesitates for just a moment. “Today.”
I’m brought to an exam room within the White House, where an in-house doctor checks me over, but it’s not like it matters, right? I mean, what if they find something wrong with me? Will Talon say, “Oh. She’s sick. Okay, then, I’ll just go back home”?
I sign what feels like a thousand forms, typed sloppily with an old-fashioned typewriter someone must have dug up, since nothing electronic works right now. I imagine the legal team, frantically searching for a typewriter, then figuring out how to use it to get these papers together so quickly. Basically, I’m signing away all my rights. I can’t sue, and nobody can sue on my behalf, if I get injured or killed on this mission. Blah blah blah. I read enough to know that I have no recourse. But I also have no choice.
I’m not allowed to return to my apartment to get supplies or clothes, but I’m brought a plain Samsonite suitcase filled with clothes and shoes in my size, plus cosmetics and toiletries. They even include a few books, but they’re classics, and I’ve read them all already. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Great Gatsby. Crime and Punishment. Briefly, I wonder what they do for entertainment on this other planet, but I don’t have much time to sit around thinking. Before I know it, I’m ushered down another hallway, practically arm in arm with the president while an aide pulls my brand new suitcase behind us.
We return to the lobby, where, still surrounded by the shimmery shield, Talon waits. I’m not close enough to be sure, but as soon as I’m within eyesight, I swear his eyes narrow slightly. He stares, then issues me a brief and perfunctory smile. Cocky asshole. I know I shouldn’t be having such negative thoughts about this creature, but there’s something about him that pisses me off. Because being angry is better than being under that spell like I was when I first made eye contact with him. That was too confusing to deal with right now.
The president turns to me and places his hands on my shoulders. “Andrea, please know that this sacrifice you are making is going to save our nation.”
I nod. But the word sacrifice brings to mind someone dying for a cause, and I’m definitely not up for that.
“I know you probably feel like you’ve been forced into this, and I can’t exactly argue with you on that point. I do want to let you know that we suggested many alternative people to go, including all my top advisors and many of our military personnel, but Talon was insistent that you were the one he wanted.”
“But why?” I tilt my head as I look up into the president’s kind face.
He shakes his head. “I don’t know. But, if all goes well, you’ll be allowed regular communication with me in order to negotiate and discuss peace agreements.”
“I’m kind of out of my depth here.”
“You’ll do great.” He smiles widely, but there’s doubt in his eyes.
“It’s time.” Talon speaks, his voice so low I can practically feel the vibrations in my stomach. Or maybe it’s just nerves.
“What should I…?” I begin to ask, but he approaches me. I take a step back, afraid I’ll be thrown by the field like the soldiers outside. But he must have changed something about the shield so it encloses me too. Now we’re both inside the strange, glimmering bubble.
He takes my hand, and I realize how big he is. He not only towers over me, but his hand envelops mine almost completely. His skin is warm, but when he leans down to whisper to me, his breath is cool, like a breeze upon my cheek. His words are in a foreign tongue, like nothing I’ve heard before. Unearthly and musical. Then he lifts one corner of his mouth in a half smile as he repeats what he just said in English. “You will not be harmed. Do not worry.”
“Easy for you to say.” The words are out of my mouth before I have a chance to think about it. Maybe I shouldn’t be impertinent to this gigantic alien who’s pretty much kidnapping me and taking me to his planet, somewhere far, far away.
But he tilts his head and his smile grows a tiny bit bigger. “I think you were the perfect choice for this mission. Come.” With my hand in his, we walk out of the White House and toward his ship.
The ship sucks us up. It’s the best way I can think to describe what happens. But it’s a graceful, floaty feeling as we rise up and into the silvery object. I clutch tight to Talon’s hand, even though I want to hate him for kidnapping me like this. I mean sure. I agreed to go. But it wasn’t like I had much of a choice.
“You won’t feel anything as we travel. The ship controls gravity perfectly, so it will be like you feel on Earth while we’re traveling to Ziladra.”
“Ziladra?” I repeat. It’s the first time I’ve heard the name, and it sounds foreign and beautiful, but it terrifies me all the same. How is it possible that, right now, I’m on my way to another planet? When I woke up this morning my biggest concern was what to wear, followed by getting to that meeting on time. Everything in my normal life suddenly feels so unimportant and tiny.
“Yes. You will be comfortable there. Maybe you will even enjoy it.” His words are welcoming, but his tone is somewhat harsh.
As soon as the ship closes itself up behind us, the bubble around us disappears. I pull my hand out of Talon’s, realizing that there is no more reason anymore for me to be holding it. The room we’re in is large and circular, with computers and command stations along the walls. Other aliens, who look similar to Talon though somewhat smaller, are busy on the machines, but they all turn to look curiously at me. Am I the first human they’ve seen up close? I hope so, because I’m already at a huge disadvantage.
Talon leaves me standing alone as he heads to one alien male and talks in his foreign language as he gestures at the screen in front of them. There’s a slight swishing sound and I feel the tiniest bit of sensation in the pit of my stomach, just enough to tell me we’ve begun moving.
He nods at me. “Come.”
So demanding. I frown slightly but approach a wall where he’s standing.
“To prove that I always keep my promises.” He waves his hand back and forth in front of the wall, and a window appears, seemingly out of nothing. I look out into blackness, but suddenly lights appear, flickering on and off then holding, staying on. “I’ve restored full power to your people. There will no doubt be a few glitches as everything gets turned on again after being out for most of the day. But humans are at least smart enough to figure it out.” He looks at me expectantly.
What does he want? Me to bow down and thank him graciously for being so kind? He should never have shut off the power and communications in the first place. I raise an eyebrow. “I guess I should thank you.” It’s the best I can do.
“You guess?” He laughs. “You’re funny, Andrea.” He says my name like it’s an experiment, a word he’s never uttered before. “Andrea Cavalas.”
“People call me Andi.”
He tilts his head and frowns down at me, his admittedly handsome face giving me his full attention. “Why do they call you Andi when your name is Andrea?”
“It’s a nickname.” I shrug.
“We don’t have nicknames in our culture. You are called by the name you are given.” He says it like the concept is utterly and completely stupid. It’s easy to see what he thinks of humans.
“Why am I even here?” No use beating around the bush. “And can I sit down somewhere? I’m exhausted.” The excitement of the day is catching up with me, and I’m dizzy and scared and more tired than I think I’ve ever been.
“Yes. Of course. Forgive me for not offering sooner.” He sounds genuinely sorry, his gruff voice lightening slightly. “Please.” He gestures for me to follow him, and I do. We walk into a short hallway, and he raises a hand and waves it back and forth like he did to make the window appear. A passageway appears in the wall, and we enter a small room, which is obviously a bedroom.
On a small table, a glass of water and a pill sit, and he picks them up, handing me the capsule. “Take this. It will help you sleep.”
Although I’m tired, I don’t want to sleep. I want to look out the magically appearing window and watch us fly past stars, or whatever we’re doing. But the way Talon stares at me, with those narrowed dark blue eyes and a hard set to his jaw, lets me know I have no choice.
I pop the little silvery pill into my mouth and swallow it down with the water he hands me. “How soon will I…” I begin, but before I can finish my question, my entire body slows down, growing simultaneously heavy and floaty. I can barely move.
He picks me up, and I’m too out of it to even object. To him I seem to weigh as little as a feather pillow. He places me down on the bed, and I feel covers being pulled up around me, but I’m too tired to help at all or focus on anything. And then I’m out.