“Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone about you. Do you need anything?”
December 21, 2030
Alex looked through the window of the airship. Beneath him, Canberra Airport and the city were getting smaller as the airship traveled west to Perth. The supersonic drive—located under the body—was quiet, even as it broke the sound barrier. He turned his attention back to the paperback he was reading. A book from the twentieth century about the Vietnam War.
Every now and then, he’d glance at his colleague Mark, who sat across the retractable tray. Trying to mask his impatience, Mark toyed with his phone. Then he put the phone away and stared at Alex. He waited for answers.
Alex put away his book and reached into his carry on and grabbed a file—the same thin file Noah gave him earlier—and handed it to Mark.
“You heard about Noah?” Alex asked.
Mark picked up the file and glanced at the confidential stamp on the cover. “Of course, the man is a legend.”
“He is the lead on this assignment.”
Alex watched Mark open the file and go through it with curiosity that turned to surprise which turned to disbelief. Alex smiled when the disbelief became a ‘we’re-going-to-die-today’ look, a justified look. After seventy years of space travel and search for aliens with no success, an alien landed on Earth.
Mark was one of the best ASIO retrieval agents, but the Agency never prepared them for this. They didn’t know what kind of weapons, physical strength, or superpowers the aliens possessed.
Mark closed the file and waved it in front of Alex. “When you said retrieval…”
“I didn’t mention the target was an alien spaceship.”
Mark chuckled. “No, you didn’t mention Perth.”
“Here he is,” Alex said. He laughed and nudged Mark in the shoulder. “Listen, the assignment isn’t to confront them. They’re more powerful than we are. That’s a fact. We need to ask them to come with us.”
ASIO knew nothing about the aliens. They had no idea how powerful they were, or if it was possible to retrieve them without trouble. They didn’t know how many aliens arrived or how big their ship was.
“You think that’d work?” Mark asked, his smile fading.
“Noah reckons it’s our best shot, and for what it’s worth, I agree. We need to operate under the assumption they’re here on a peaceful mission.”
“We only detected one ship?”
“What if there are more ships?”
“I don’t think so,” Alex said. “We have been monitoring nonstop, and this is the only signal we’ve detected.”
The first recorded space visitor in modern history could provide a wealth of information, and the first contact was crucial. It’d shape the future of the relationship. Unless the nature of the relationship was decided beforehand. Did they travel here to explore life on Earth or to scout before an invasion?
“Go through your file, mate. We land in fifteen minutes,” Alex said.
Mark fiddled with the file for a minute. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is a job for the army.”
“What? You have better plans for your Friday night?”
“No, it’s bloody cool, but we’re outgunned. Surely, you see that.”
“Good thing we’re not fighting them,” Alex said. “Look, if they were trying to wage war, they would’ve brought an army not a single ship.”
Mark didn’t say a word.
They both sat in silence until the airship landed in Perth in time to catch the last glimpses of sunlight. They exited the airship and the airport. Even the nights in Western Australia (WA) were warm and dry. Alex walked to an unmarked car in front of the terminal.
“Where to?” The driver asked.
“East Perth,” Alex said and got into the car.
Without a word, the driver navigated the near-empty streets until he arrived in East Perth ten minutes later.
Alex exited the car into Adelaide Terrace and walked to the large park where the alien ship landed, but it was nowhere to be found. He pulled an energy monitoring device from his pocket to track the unique energy trail the aliens left behind. It led him to one of the high rises across the park.
“Do you know which floor?” Mark asked.
Alex took a deep breath. “No, we have to do this the old-fashion way.” They scanned the building with the device—one floor at a time—until they reached the seventh floor. Alex followed the faint energy reading to an apartment.
“They’re inside,” Alex whispered and knocked on the door. “Government agents, open the door.” No one answered. He knocked again.
“Coming.” A man’s voice answered before the door opened.
Alex flashed his credentials. “I’m agent Callahan, and this is agent Heggie.”
“What…” The apartment owner said and swallowed, “how can I help you?”
“You mind if we come in?” Alex asked.
The man shook his head and stepped back.
Alex walked into the apartment. “Where are they?”
Mark glared at him. “The aliens. Where are the aliens?”
The man’s features eased, and he waved to a narrow corridor across the kitchen. “It’s just the one, and she’s in the bedroom.”
Alex glanced at the open pizza box on the kitchen top. His eyes narrowed. A pizza party? Not what he expected to see. He thought the apartment owner would be dead or held hostage. He’d expected the aliens to open fire the moment they laid eyes on him.
“Yeah, she is nice,” the man said. “Well, not at first. She was mean, but—”
“Can you take us to her?” Mark asked.
The man frowned and glowered at Mark before he strolled into the hallway. “Yeah, this way.”
He led them to a closed door. “It’s best if you wait here,” Alex said and opened the door.
Shara sat down in bed, her back against the wooden headboard. With Phil’s tablet in her lap, she swiped away the hologramic web pages. So much information, very little time. She tried to tune out the noise outside. Phil must’ve invited acquaintances over.
There were footsteps in front of the bedroom. The door opened, and two men entered the room. They stood next to the door and examined her before one of them stepped closer. At first, his eyes were wide and his mouth was open. Then he came to his senses and looked up at her face.
Shara recalled what she learned about Earth and gave him a friendly smile. “Who are you?”
“I’m agent Callahan, but you can call me Alex. I’m with the Intelligence Agency.”
Okay, they weren’t acquaintances of Phil then. Shara accessed the ASIO website from the tablet, and she was expecting this visit.
“A spy?” She asked, injecting as much surprise in her voice as possible. The wide glowing eyes, the open mouth, the whole thing.
“Are you here for information?”
Alex shook his head.
“No?” Shara asked and put aside her tablet. She didn’t expect that.
“We’re hoping you’d come with us.”
Shara observed him for a minute. The agent was thirty-something. He was tall with short, black hair. He was clean-shaven with blue eyes and wore a simple black suit.
“My boss wants to speak to you,” Alex said.
“Why would I do that, agent?”
Alex’s face tensed up. “We want to know who you are and why are you here.”
Shara left the bed and hovered forward until she stood before him. She reached for his head, but his colleague, who stood at the door and observed the entire time, intervened and pulled Alex back.
“It’s okay,” Alex whispered to his colleague and motioned him to stop.
Shara did her best to seem agitated. She hovered, her green eyes glowing. She pushed her palm forward in the air and released a small power wave that sent them flying through the open door. Their bodies slammed against the wall with enough force to get their attention, but not to hurt them. Short of reading their brains, it was the best way to reveal their intentions.
Alex shot to his feet and leaned over to check on Mark. “You all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Mark said through gritted teeth. “That was uncalled for. We’re unarmed.”
Alex stretched his hand to help him up. “It’s a test, stay calm.”
Shara smiled and landed on the floor. Her eyes dimmed, and she lowered her hand.
“Come with us. We don’t mean harm,” Alex said.
Before she answered, Phil barged into the room. “What did you do?”
Mark scowled. “We crushed our bones against your bathroom wall to show her we mean business.”
“Did you hurt her?” Phil asked.
Alex intervened before Mark launched another verbal attack. “We’re not trying to hurt her, mate. We need to find out why she is here.”
Okay, that was enough, she could trust them. “It’s okay, Phil. I will leave with them.”
Phil’s eyes widened. “Are you sure?”
“I’ll be fine.”
He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment before he strode toward her to give her a hug. “Ok, take care of yourself.”
“Our airship is at the airport,” Alex said.
“Mine is faster.” Shara said and led them to the park next to the river where she left her ship. She stopped at the edge of the river and deactivated the cloaking device.
The small ship appeared above the water and hovered forward until it landed on the grass next to her. A door in the front of the ship opened upward, and she walked through it. Shara sat down in one of the two front seats. The two agents stood outside where they were. She motioned them to get into the ship. Alex sat down on the front seat to her right while Mark took the back seat.
Shara tapped the ship’s wall and activated the navigation panel. The ship’s navigation computer had downloaded the world maps from a satellite. She waved her hand on the panel until Canberra showed up, then the ASIO building. She started the engine and leaned back in her seat. Metal straps fastened around her chest and thighs.
The ship ascended a kilometer in the air before it traveled forward, picking up speed every second. Shara glanced at Alex. The speed overwhelmed him. He clung to his seat—his back straight and his hands clasped the sides of his seat.
Shara looked ahead. “It might be uncomfortable, but you’ll be fine.”
A minute or two later, the ship decelerated at the same rate it sped up earlier. Alex’s head almost slammed against the navigation panel as he leaned forward. The ship landed in front of the ASIO building. The door opened. Shara exited, and the two of them stumbled behind her. The ship took off above the building before it vanished.
Shara hovered forward to the entrance and made her way inside. An old man rushed to meet her with a handful of agents.
With a polite smile on his face, he stretched his hand forward. “Thank you for coming, I’m Noah.”
She stopped and studied him for a second. Was he the boss? He wasn’t as tall as Alex. His hair was short and curly, and some of it was gray. And he was overweight.
“Welcome to Australia. We have an area in the building set up for you.”
December 21, 2030
Alissara ignored the cold draft from the open window. She leaned back on the couch and stretched her legs above the small coffee table. She’d taken off her boots. The sharp edge of the wooden table dug into her flesh. Alissara ignored it and waved her hand to swipe another web page as she’d been doing for the past two hours.
Every time she swiped a web page, the tablet seemed to take its last breaths and inch closer to end of life. The short breaks every fifteen minutes were no help. Still, Alissara learned about Egypt’s history, religions, and culture. She learned about Earth’s divided regions—each had their own government, history, religion, language, and culture. She learned about sports, arts, and entertainment. She learned what Friday prayers were—a speech followed by a short prayer that lasted an hour, two for the devoted. So what had Hala been doing for four hours?
Her sisters would’ve been relieved to have the place for themselves, but Alissara was lonely. Speaking of her sisters, the last time she’d seen them was after the battle. Over the past few days, she’d missed them more than she thought possible. Sometimes they picked on her—training sessions were the worst—but there was no one she would rather see than her family. She knew her sisters had landed.
Somebody was at the front door. Keys jangled, and the door opened. Hala came back. “Sorry, I’m late. I ran into a friend and couldn’t get out of it.”
Alissara forced a tired smile on her face. “It’s okay.”
Hala put her keys and purse away and sat down on a small wooden chair next to the couch. “You know with how fast you’ve been swiping, it’s a miracle you haven’t absorbed the entire human knowledge.”
Alissara put the tablet aside, stretched her arms, and gave her a genuine smile. “I would’ve, but your tablet got in the way.”
Hala chuckled. “Sorry, it’s what I can afford on a teaching assistant’s salary.”
“Don’t tell me. I read that somewhere,” Alissara said. “You help university professors teach subjects to students.”
Hala removed her scarf and sat down next to her. “No, I make egotistical professors tea and coffee, pick up their copies, and reject their advances. In my spare time, I convince hormone-driven eighteen-year-olds that the subjects I teach are worth staying awake for in class.”
Alissara reached Hala in one swift move and patted her shoulder, which she hoped was a sign of sympathy not a threat. “If it makes you feel better, I fought an intergalactic war a few days ago.”
Hala’s eyes widened. “Are you serious?”
Alissara nodded. “Worst day of my life.”
“I have the perfect way to relax you, and it doesn’t involve my crappy tablet.”
A break would be good. But, Alissara felt guilty relaxing and ignoring her mission and what she had to do.
“I don’t know, I should—”
“C’mon, It’ll be fun!”
Alissara glanced at the tablet that begged for a break before she examined Hala for a moment. Her smile was wide, and her eyes sparkled. She was energetic, manic even.
“Great,” Hala said and balled her hands into victorious fists. “I hope you don’t mind wearing the dress and scarf again.”
“Are we going to the same area where we borrowed it?”
Hala chuckled. “No, we’re going somewhere else—a popular spot.” She brought the long black dress and scarf.
Another thing Alissara learned, and it paid off. She put on the dress and covered her hair with the scarf in a different way from what Hala had shown her this morning. When she finished, she stretched her arms to the sides with her hands facing Hala. “What do you think?”
“I love it,” Hala said, smiling. “Let me help you apply makeup.”
“To look like everyone else. If your eyes don’t light up the street, we should get by unnoticed.”
Alissara’s lips curled, and her nose wrinkled. Korrans didn’t wear makeup. “You worry too much.”
Hala disappeared into the bathroom and returned carrying small, plastic containers and brushes. Before Alissara could object, she applied powders and liquids to her face and what looked like writing tools to her eyes. Then she applied a sticky but tasty liquid to her lips. When Hala was done with her, she’d look like the ancient king.
“I know, but this suburb is in a working class area,” Hala said, and continued painting Alissara’s face. “Everyone looks and dresses the same way. If you stand out, people will stare. Believe me, it’s very uncomfortable. Oh, and if anyone asks, you’re a friend, visiting from my hometown.”
“I preferred it when I terrified you.”
A while later, they walked down the busy street. People were walking home from the mosques or visiting. The aromas of home-cooked food bombarded Alissara’s nose from every direction. Loud and cheerful customers, as loud as the speakers blasting Arabic music, crowded restaurants and coffee shops.
Hala waved to one of the incoming cars. “Taxi!”
The car pulled over, and they got into the back seat. After a half hour of driving at a speed faster than walking but not by much because of the heavy traffic, they reached an old area. Not old like Hala’s building, old like the ruins of Ashbal on Korr.
“Ok, this is Khan el-Khalili,” Hala said and pointed to an alley too narrow to accommodate a car.
Alissara exited the car and entered the alley behind Hala. It had high walls made of yellow stone on both sides. Above the stone walls, there were old mosques and ruins of old castles. At the end of the alley, they reached a wide, open space with many stores. People crowded the area. They entered and exited the shops.
“We’ll smoke Shisha in one of the coffee shops,” Hala said.
Coffee shops were the places where people had tea and coffee, but what was Shisha? Patrons were everywhere doing many things, but which one was Shisha? Hala grabbed her hand and dragged her toward a small shop.
“This is a nice place.”
Alissara paced to keep her arm from getting ripped out of her body by the overexcited monster. They stopped at an empty table outside the shop and sat down. Alissara examined her arm to make sure it was still attached to her body and rubbed it for a while.
People were drinking tea, playing board games, and shouting at one another in a friendly manner. The joyous atmosphere lifted Alissara’s spirits.
Hala clapped her hands three times. Seconds later, the waiter showed up with a silver tray in his hand. His apron was wet with drinks and covered in stains. Something dangled above his right ear.
“Black tea with mint for two and a watermelon Shisha.” Hala asked.
“Coming right up,” he said and left in enthusiastic, wide strides until he disappeared inside the shop.
Their tea pot and colorful, glass cups arrived with the Shisha. Shisha was a large, glass container connected to a metal pipe that had a plastic hose coming out of it, and a clay stone on top covered with shiny material. The waiter put three flaming pieces of charcoal above the stone head and spread them around with metal tongs.
Hala poured the tea into the small cups with loops on the side and picked up the plastic hose from the waiter. She put it in her mouth, inhaled, then blew the warm smoke into the air and relaxed in her seat. The scent was nice, but Alissara didn’t recognize it.
“It’s flavored tobacco,” Hala said.
“Is it good?”
“Well, it’s tasty, fun, and relaxing. But it’s bad for your lungs.”
lungs,” Alissara said, with a wide grin, “We don’t have lungs.”
Hala put her index finger in front of her mouth and whispered. “Shush! Not so loud.”
Alissara giggled, snatched the Shisha hose from her, and inhaled the same way Hala did. Then she blew the smoke high in the air.
“Amazing! I coughed for three weeks when I took up smoking,” Hala said.
Alissara huffed and blew the air out. “I love it.”
Hala took a sip of her tea and motioned to the other cup. “Try it with tea.”
Alissara couldn’t insert her glove-clad finger into the small loop, so she held it on both sides with her fingers and took a long sip. “Tasty!”
“If you don’t mind me asking, what are you planning to do?”
Alissara drank tea, smoked Shisha, and blew out the smoke. She nailed down the sequence. “I’m learning about Earth while waiting for my mother to arrive. But I suppose it’s time to make preparations.”
“You won’t attack us, will you?”
Alissara chuckled. “No, I meant contacting your government to make sure they don’t open fire the second my mother arrives.”
“Oh, thank god! I guess you have your choice between the army and the Intelligence Agency.”
Alissara shrugged and smoked again. It didn’t matter. They shared information with one another.
“I suggest the Agency because their headquarters is close. The nearest army headquarters is hours away.”
Hala pointed to the Shisha. “You’re supposed to pass it after you smoke twice.” She reached for the hose, but Alissara leaned back, refusing to hand it to her.
“Is that why you’ve been following the hose with your eyes the entire time?”
“I wasn’t,” Hala said, and reached for the hose again. “Just pass it, Shisha hugger.”
Alissara moved the hose out of her reach and shook her head.
“Fine, I’ll get my own,” Hala said and ordered herself another Shisha, which arrived soon. She smoked. “How will you go to the Intelligence Agency?”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea. You’ll cause panic.”
“What do you have in mind?”
Hala smiled mischievously. “The Metro.”
Alissara’s eyes widened. She’d read articles and watched videos of the ancient, crowded, yet efficient transportation network under the greater Cairo region.
Half hour later, an overweight lady sat down on the metal bench next to Hala and squeezed Alissara between Hala and two, thin metal poles in the Metro car. Alissara leaned forward before they crushed her shoulders. She watched the lights in the underground tunnel, go by for a while before she turned her attention inside the train.
The train was old. Clean, but crowded. What it lacked in speed, it made up for in entertainment. Passengers blasted high-pitched music from their phones, assuming others would enjoy it, but the others were busy, shouting at each other in friendly conversations. The best part was the transient sellers who roamed the cars selling food, books, and small goods. One word described the Metro. Chaotic.
Hala must’ve noticed her amusement. “I bought a Gucci bag once for twenty pounds.”
Alissara’s eyes narrowed. “Gucci?”
“Oh, it’s a fancy bag brand.”
Hala lifted her leather handbag in front of her. “Like this one, but a nicer brand. Much nicer.”
Alissara’s eyes narrowed further. “Brand?”
“Oh my god! What were you doing on the tablet for hours? You’re worse than my brothers.”
Alissara exploded laughing. “I’m kidding, I know what it is.” Then she lowered her voice. “Remind me again, what was wrong with my ship?”
“Believe me, I’m dying to see it, but if you show up with your ship out of nowhere, they’ll open fire without warning. And it’s faster to walk than to take a taxi through the city center.”
Alissara scowled and looked out the window again. Every five minutes, the train stopped at a station, and passengers exited. The lady next to Hala wasn’t one of them. Going by how relaxed she was, the lady was taking the train to the end of the line.
An hour later, the train reached a station.
“This is it,” Hala said. The sign read Hadayek el Kobba. “The Agency headquarters is a short walk from here.”
They got off the train, exited the station, and walked for a while until they arrived to a large, gated area. Behind the metal gate, Alissara saw a huge building in the distance blocked from view by large trees. On a wooden bench behind the gate, two guards in army uniforms sat down.
One of them marched to the gate when he saw them. “What do you want?”
“We need to meet the director,” Hala said.
The guard spun around, exchanged looks with his colleague, and burst into an uncontrollable laughter. It went on for a while. Then he stopped and scratched his head under the hat.
“Do you want us to check if the president is free first?”
Alissara chuckled. “That’s funny!”
Hala smiled and patted her back. “Oh, you get sarcasm.” She turned to the guards with a serious face. “It doesn’t have to be the director. Can we please speak to an officer?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“If you won’t tell me, leave.”
Hala planted her left hand on her hip and waved her right hand in his face. “We’re not going anywhere.”
“If you don’t leave now, we’ll arrest you and your friend for trespassing.”
“It’s a matter of national security.”
“And this is a matter of final warning,” the guard said, and meant it.