by M. C. Tuggle
“I almost wish those damn aliens had picked another ad agency.”
We sat on the balcony of Jack Council’s condo on the 33rd floor of the McCall Tower, enjoying the crisp October air and what Jack called his “buzzard’s eye view” of Charlotte. The glass office buildings below sparkled like jewels in the light of the setting sun.
Jack’s doctor had warned me this might happen. I tried to think of something to say.
Jack growled. “Hell, my firm’s got the whole world on fire with the aliens’ PR campaign, and I’m stuck here.”
I covered my mouth. But not fast enough.
Jack shot me a dirty look. “What’s so damn funny?”
“C’mon, Jack. The rest of the world thinks this alien stuff is for real. But you?”
“I don’t buy their whole story, but so what? It’s a damn good campaign.”
“People in every country can’t wait for them to get here. That YouTube series about how Earth people are smarter and more accepting of strangers than the inhabitants of Tau Ceti—goddamn, that’s brilliant. Damn fine work.”
I started to tell him, but caught myself. His doctor had told me the hyper-aggressive culture of the advertising business had triggered Jack’s breakdown. She’d also warned that being so close and yet so far from the “alien mania” gripping the world had inflamed his anxiety.
So I kept quiet and gazed past the city at distant blue hills.
An old memory changed my mind, and I sat up straight. It was Jack who had mentored me when the other partners snubbed what they called a diversity hire. I decided he’d want to know.
“Jack, I scripted those videos.”
He twisted in his chair and stared at me. His hand probed the table beside him. He found his glass and raised it to his mouth. Jack took a long, slow swallow. When he finished, he set it down with a loud clink against the marble and shut his eyes.
I felt my chest tighten. My God. What have I done?
Jack opened his eyes and wiped them with his open palm. “Goddamn, I should’ve known. General Suarez even mentioned those videos when he told Congress why he trusted the aliens.” He tilted his bottle of Glenkinchie my way, and I nodded. He sloshed some into a glass and said, “Thank you. At least I’ve got a dog in this fight.”
A wave of relief swept over me. I took a deep breath and reached for my scotch. “Like you always said, Jack: You clinch your target market by aiming for the head and hitting the heart.”
Jack held out his glass and I tapped it with mine. He said, “That’s my champ.”
“Thanks.” The Glenkinchie went down warm and silky, and hinted of cinnamon. I studied the golden reflection of the Charlotte skyline in my glass a moment, then looked up at Jack. “So. You really believe aliens are scoping us out?”
“Damn right. Remember when they sent that warning about the telemetry glitch that could’ve crippled the space station?”
“Sure. The president even thanked the aliens on TV. But I think NASA was in on that.”
“Why would NASA lie?”
“To build support for the space program.”
“Nah. That was for real.”
I studied Jack and said, “So what part of the story don’t you believe?”
Jack leaned forward. “Their intentions.” He settled back in his chair and said, “Before my—problems—I read their first emails to us.” Jack cocked his head at me. “What do you think?”
“I think my job is to tell the story my clients want told. Anyone could be sending us those emails and wire transfer payments. I bet Apple’s behind this, building the biggest stealth campaign ever for some amped-up product.”
Jack shook his head. “I could feel it in the tone of their writing. It’s aliens all right. And this is all one big-ass trap.”
Trap? I bit my tongue. While preparing me for the visit, Jack’s doctor had reminded me how anxiety disorder made even the smartest people fearful and suspicious. She was right.
I heard sharp tapping on glass behind me and turned toward the sliding door. Emma, Jack’s live-in care giver, stood on the other side waving at me. I waved back that everything was okay.
“Jack, if you think this ad campaign is a trap, why do you want to be part of it?”
Jack’s sagging face crinkled into a half-smile. “Hell, it’s inevitable, ain’t it? Sooner or later something out there’s going to get us. Killer asteroid, black hole, space wolves. And I sure as hell ain’t got much time left. So why not be part of the show? I say let’s go out with the last, greatest ad campaign in history.”
I laughed, despite myself. I leaned back in my seat. He sounded like the old Jack Council.
The sliding glass door rumbled open behind me, but I didn’t bother turning. It was probably time for Jack’s meds.
Emma breezed past us and leaned against the balcony, one hand shading her eyes.
“Whatcha looking for, Emma?”
Emma turned and beamed at Jack. “They’re here. It’s on CNN. I tried to get you. Their ships have been spotted in Europe and America.”
I jumped to my feet and scanned the skies.
Emma pointed and said, “There they are!”
I looked up in time to see a dark cluster high overhead drop at amazing speed. It broke up into hundreds of grey objects that spread across the sky and zipped off in different directions. One headed directly toward us.
It was true. My heart pounded. Jack’s scotch amplified the thrill that shot through me.
The ship slowed to a soundless descent. It was going to land in the street below.
A scene I’d visualized and described in countless PR pieces and had imagined to be impossible now unfolded before me. I felt a cold shudder run down my back.
As it coasted by our balcony, I stared at a craft I could never have imagined. Instead of the sleek, elegant space vessel I’d envisioned, the dark grey ship looked like a Civil War ironclad. It even had what looked like a conical turret with black streaks that could have been scorch marks. Crystal-clear windows wrapped around the front of the ship, and as it crept past us, I could see the occupants. They had to be seven feet tall, with long, wiry arms, and hairy snouts, like possums.
It looked like they smiled as they passed us.
We watched the ship until it reached the street, now overflowing with people. Three hatches on the ship flew open, and white beams danced over the crowd.
Emma and I exchanged joyous smiles. Then, despite the distance, I heard a roar from the street, like ocean surf. The crowd appeared to flow into the ship like liquid being blotted up.
I blinked in disbelief. Emma gasped, and when I turned, saw that Jack had joined us. He peered down over the railing and said, “Here we go.”
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M. C. Tuggle is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. His fantasy, sci-fi, and literary stories have been featured in Space Squid, Kzine, Bewildering Stories, Mystic Signals, Fabula Argentea, and Fiction 365. The Novel Fox released his novella “Aztec Midnight” in December, 2014. Mike’s writing blog is mctuggle.com.