A STRANGE PROPOSITION FROM A STRANGER
Arbor Winter Barrow
“I’ll have you know I don’t normally show up to luncheons wearing designer sequins carrying a toolbox.” The woman wasn’t just wearing designer sequins and carrying a toolbox, her hair was frazzled and sticking about in all directions. There was definitely glitter in it too.
”Oh?” I asked, uncertain. I didn’t know who this woman was or what she had wanted but I had been sitting at the Sammy’s Sammiches minding my own business when this woman had plopped down across from me.
“May I?” The woman held the toolbox over the table where my notebook and cellphone were sitting.
I moved most of my stuff out of the way just in time for her to drop the toolbox loudly on the table top. The only casualty was my half-eaten sandwich. The other patrons of the sandwich shop looked over, some annoyed, some concerned. I tried to form some kind of verbal protest but the woman opened the toolbox and pulled out a stack of loose papers. Was she using a heavy tool box for a briefcase? All things considered I guess that wasn’t the strangest thing.
The woman eyed the papers like she couldn’t quite make out what they said and then leaned over the table at me conspiratorially. “How about forty acres?”
“Mars?” She said this as if it were obvious.
“What are you, fifty?”
I squinted at her, confused. “Twenty-three.”
“My apologies, it’s hard to tell these days. You’re a young lady, you are a lady right? Last time I assumed I misgendered someone and they were not happy. I felt terrible about it for days, I’m absolutely determined to never do it again.”
I just nodded. “You’re right… this time.” Was this woman for real?
“I know forty acres on that dustball of a planet doesn’t sound all that great, but listen, terraforming is only a decade away, what costs you pennies on the dollar today will get you a thousand times the investment.”
“Wait a second. Are you trying to sell me real estate on Mars?”
“It’s what we agreed to!”
“Uh, I didn’t agree to anything.”
“Look, I know you might be having second thoughts–”
“I’m not having second thoughts, I haven’t even had first thoughts. I’m just sitting here trying to enjoy a sandwich between my classes and you turned it into a pancake with your toolbox.” I pointed to the pitiful thing, half-eaten and half-squished.
The woman peered around the toolbox and frowned. “Why ever would you put your sandwich under a toolbox?”
“That’s…oh my god.” I ran my hand across my face and tried to find an escape route without being obvious about it.
“Listen here Miss Cargill–”
“Thomas,” I said absently and regretted it the second I did.
“My last name is not Cargill; it’s Thomas. Dany Thomas.” What was I doing?! Run away you fool! Abort! Abort!
“Are you sure?” She looked mildly alarmed.
I pointed to the student ID clipped to my collar.
“Oh my.” The woman leaned back and stared at me like she we seeing me for the first time. “You’re not the person I’m supposed to meet.”
“No…shit,” I said with heavy sarcasm. “You owe me a new sandwich.”
“How should I know?”
“I was supposed to meet them here.”
I lifted my hands in a shrug and then waved my open palms in a half-circle to indicate the rest of the sandwich shop.
“Oh, this is bad! I’ll lose my commission over this!”
“Listen, don’t worry about it. I won’t tell anyone.” Lies! I’m telling everyone this bonkers story!
“Oh no, you don’t understand. It was certain, for sure, the contract is right here! It’s supposed to be signed today! If I don’t have a signature and a buyer, I’m toast! I’ll be banished to live on Mercury! Oh, what a world! The worst. No margaritas anywhere!” She genuinely looked on the verge of tears.
“Are you okay? Humans have only been to the moon. No one is going to send you to Mars, much less Mercury.”
“Oh you poor human girl, you don’t get it do you?”
“I’m obviously not getting something, no, so please enlighten me.” Why? Why did I keep encouraging her?
The woman wiped at a nonexistent tear and seemed disappointed there was nothing there except specks of glitter. “I’m from a small backwater planet about fourteen light years from here. This was supposed to be my big break into interplanetary real estate. This pilot program was going to boost our economy and everyone in my family was going to be able to afford all the finest luxuries.”
I was nodding encouragingly until the entire thing percolated through my sleep deprived, over studied, hyper caffeinated brain. “What?” I said stupidly.
“You wouldn’t know it, I think it shows up as being about fourteen light years from here on your star maps.”
“You’re an alien?”
“For better or worse.”
This lady was either on the fast train to crazy town or already there. Or she was telling the truth. She seemed legitimately upset that I wasn’t the person she was supposed to meet. I honestly didn’t know which direction I wanted to believe.
“Alright,” I said and crossed my arms across my chest. “Assuming that you’re telling me the truth. How do I know that I’m actually going to get the forty acres after I pay?”
I think she got glitter in her eyes while wiping at invisible tears because suddenly they were sparkling. “You’re interested?”
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” The lady started frantically going through her toolbox. “I’ll have to amend the contract but that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“First, what’s your name?”
“Your name is Unpronounceable?”
“Oh! No! I mean, yes, but when I’m here I go by Chuck.”
“Chuck. Okay, Chuck, my last question…”
“How do you know you’ll get the forty acres?”
Chuck readjusted herself and a new demeanor took over her posture. She was cool, confident, and sparkly in her designer sequins.
“I am not of this world. However in two years’ time the Galactic First Contact Association will be contacting your world and providing technological advancements, assistance, and personnel. Your species has been selected for a pilot program to determine if near-space faring species can be contacted and enriched without destroying themselves.”
“It is isn’t it? I’ve seen the reports, even if you do destroy yourselves the chance that another sentient species will rise on your planet is at nearly 88%! Those are great odds.” Chuck didn’t seem to realize that wasn’t encouraging at all.
“So in two years we get contacted and then we get to go to Mars?”
“Yes! We give you the supplies and provide transport and a 25 hour help desk!”
“A Martian day is almost an hour longer!”
My phone beeped and I pressed my finger to the near-silent alarm. It was almost time to head back to class. I could miss one class of Special Topics in Anthropological Literature. I could probably write a whole essay about what I was experiencing right now. If it was real.
“Now, since you are being introduced to this fresh, I don’t want to force you into a contract you know nothing about. May I see your cellular device?”
I clutched my phone close to my chest and frowned at her. “Why?”
“I need to call in a transport.”
I reluctantly handed over my phone and she fussed with it for a moment before awkwardly holding it up to her ear.
“Karen! I need a transport from my location to the prospective acreage. Yes. Yes. That too. New inductee! Byeeee!” Chuck handed me the phone back and smiled happily.
“So…where are we going?”
I didn’t have a second to question that idea because the air around us started to glimmer and a feeling of warmth replaced the cool sandwich shop AC. The chair under me disappeared and I fell to the floor. But not the floor of the sandwich shop, the floor of a UFO.
Chuck appeared next to me and lifted me up onto my feet. “Apologies, our gravity is heavier than yours.” Once I got my feet under me and stable enough I got a good look at the rest of the room. A wide window looked out on Earth and in the distance I saw a sliver of the moon. Other than the window, the room didn’t have many other features. There was a wide doorway that led into a hallway and a single console in the middle of the room.
Chuck tapped the floor with her foot and the area opened up. A couch lifted up and Chuck pushed me to a seat.
Okay, up till now, I had just been playing along, looking for a good story, and not really taking Chuck’s antics seriously. But I was sitting on a purple couch IN A UFO! I was looking at the southern hemisphere of the Earth. Australia and New Zealand took up the length of the window.
“Ready to see your new plot of land on Mars?” Chuck asked.
I just nodded, at a loss for words.
Chuck took up a position in front of the window and tapped her foot on the floor again. A control panel lifted out of the floor and Chuck tapped happily on the buttons. “Here’s hoping I don’t bring this back to Karen dented!”
“Dented?” I asked. The view out the window shifted as the ship turned away from Earth. I felt no movement or momentum. The only indication that we were moving coming from the track of stars across the viewer as the ship turned. The view went white and colors streaked as the ship zoomed forwards. In seconds we were no longer in orbit around Earth. The rust red surface of Mars filled the window and I gasped again. The pictures I had seen of Earth and Mars from space did nothing to compare to seeing them with my own eyes. I gingerly got up off the couch and went to stand next to Chuck at the window.
“Amazing isn’t it?” Chuck asked.
“I can’t believe it.”
“Seeing is believing!”
Chuck tapped a sequence into the console in front of her and the ship began to descend. I watched with amazement as the Martian landscape filled the viewer and Chuck landed the ship on a flat, rocky bit of terrain. In the distance, huge mountains broke up the horizon line.
Chuck led me further into the ship and at an airlock had me pull on an overlarge EVA suit. I felt like I was wearing a tent. “Why is this so big?”
“This is the suit that was made for the previous contract signer. We had their measurements prior to this flight. After we visit your plot of land we’ll have to have to get your measurements.”
“My measurements? What for?”
We have to make sure we get the right habitat for you. We can’t be trying to put a human sized person into a cat sized habitat now can we?”
“Wait, are you selling Martian real estate to cats, too?”
“Well, of course! They have every right to be there just like you!”
The image of a cat habitat with cats in little cat jumpsuits was unavoidable. I snickered.
“Come along!” Chuck had her own suit on, and of course, it had sequins and glitter all over it. We walked out onto the Martian surface. Chuck used a little red laser pointer to show me the area of land I was being sold.
“How much?” I asked after a minute. It was too much to take in. As soon as I got back I was going to skip class and go home and sleep.
“One US dollar an acre.”
“A dollar…an acre? That’s really cheap.”
“Like I said, pennies on the dollar!” She clapped and then wiggled her fingers outwards like she’d just performed a magic trick.
Forty dollars wasn’t that much if this all turned out to be real, but forty dollars was a weeks’ worth of groceries for my poor college ass if it wasn’t.
“What’s the chance this all falls through and I don’t get to come to Mars?”
“Oh! The money is held in escrow until successful integration and introduction is complete.” Chuck seemed really proud of that.
“Wait, why do you even need money? Earth money isn’t going to be good on other planets.”
“On the contrary. The galactic economy is built on the economies of every species in it. If your planet successfully enters the galactic society your Earth money will be incorporated. One of the reasons my people are doing this is because the sooner you get a jump on and initial standard of another planet’s money the more profitable you’ll be.”
“Well that sounds really complicated.”
“It is.” Chuck nodded.
I looked out on the barren desert and tried to imagine it lush with gardens and greenery. “Two years?”
“Two years. I believe they will try to aim for a slow news day on Earth. They have some algorithm they follow but that is not my forte.” Chuck smiled at me through her helmet.
“Alright. Sure. Let’s do it. I can eat ramen for a week.”
“You can come by my apartment and have some if you want.”
“I would enjoy that. I’m very fond of the chicken flavor. It’s very ubiquitous.”
I laughed. “That’s one word for it.”
So I signed the contract and handed over forty dollars. Chuck joined me for a ramen lunch and two years passed with little trouble. There were only a couple times I regretted the purchase. But the ride to Mars alone was worth it. I graduated from university, got a job as a programmer, and found myself sitting in a cubicle typing code for hours on end. Above my monitor I had a postcard with a picture of Mars on it. Chuck had given it to me after I’d signed the contract. I had put a sticker of a cat in a spacesuit on it at some point.
Chuck had never given me an exact timeline of when Earth would be contacted by aliens but I really wanted it to be today. It was slow, the news was just stories about a goat rescue in China, reforestation in Chile after a forest fire, and every baking show was a rerun.
I guess whoever was in charge was listening, because every screen in the office flickered and a message appeared on the screen.
“Hello, people of Earth. We come in peace.”
Find & Follow!
~Arbor Winter Barrow
Writer | Artist | Jane of Most Trades