I paused in the doorway, uncomfortably aware of the scrutiny I was receiving. Strangers in this town were rare, and strangers of my kind were unheard of. I scraped my boots and ignored the hostility, mustering an arrogant confidence as I strode in. It was all a façade; underneath was a heart beating rapidly from anxiety. I hoped he would arrive quickly so I could leave before things got ugly.
I took a seat at the bar and glanced quickly around the room, taking in as many details as possible. The patrons were all men, all bearded, armed and rough-looking. The bartender was a heavy-set man with mutton chops instead of a full beard, and the barmaid—the only other female in the place—was old beyond her years. I’d guess she was in her thirties but she looked a decade older, with frizzy brown hair and faded eyes. The pianist intrigued me, but I didn’t want to stare at him too closely. Could he be one of us?
“We don’t serve your kind in here.”
The bartender had a thick accent, some kind of European I thought. I smiled at him and said nothing. There were murmurs but the silence stretched on. Tension blanketed the room. I felt suffocated by it. To my left a chair clattered as someone stood and pushed it back, and the clomping of boots filled my ears as he approached.
He stopped behind me, his breathing harsh. I could feel the hatred emanating from him with his body heat. I tensed, ready to defend myself if need be, but at that moment the saloon doors swung open again and all turned to look. I peered around the cowboy’s mass, and breathed a silent sigh of relief.
“Professor. So good to see you.” My voice was lower than usual, but these people didn’t know that. They couldn’t read the fear in it. He glared around the room as he stomped over to me and they grudgingly resumed their business, the pianist striking up his abandoned tune.
“Can I help you, Chuck?” The Professor’s aggressive tone left no doubts that the query wasn’t genuine. The big cowboy stammered something and backed off. The Professor sat at the stool next to me, handed me some documents and shook his head. “Ignorant barbarians,” he muttered. Then he took my hand and smiled at me, and this time he was clearly genuine. “I’m so pleased you could make it, Ariana. We have much to discuss.”
I gestured around the room. “Is this really the best place, Professor? I’m not sure if my people…” I trailed off. I didn’t want to sound prejudiced.
“Yes, this place is perfect. They have very little outside contact. This town is a thorn in the Governor’s side. I doubt they’ll be missed.”
“We have our concerns. The secrecy—is it really necessary?”
He snorted. “After your reception today, what do you think?”
I shrugged. “Fair point.” I flicked a glance at the pianist. The differences were probably only obvious to me, if indeed he was an undercover agent. It might be just a quirk of genetics that gave him those long fingers and oddly—to them—casted eyes. A good shifter should be indistinguishable from the population he’s immersed in. Ambassadors like me emphasise our different traits in order to stand out and give our shifters a better chance of blending in.
“The terms are agreeable?” The Professor sounded a little too smooth, and I frowned. I glanced at the documents I’d set in front of me. Last-minute additions weren’t unheard of in these arrangements, so I flicked through the pages once again. An innocuous clause that I’d never seen before had been inserted between ‘Energy’ and ‘Medicine’.
“Professor? I think this clause here violates the terms of our agreement.”
He leaned over and looked at the phrase I indicated. “Ah. Well. Let’s strike that out shall we?” He waited expectantly while I retrieved a pen—an archaic device to me, but these humans had no technology compatible with my people’s advanced technologies—and handed it to him. With a neat hand he struck out the clause. He hesitated a moment then looked at me.
Do you mind if I keep this?” He waved the pen in the air. “It’s marvellously efficient.”
I shrugged. “Keep it. What you’ll learn from us will make that seem inconsequential.” I gazed around the room once more. “Are you sure these people will not be missed?”
He laughed. “If anyone misses them, we’ll send them to you. A gift.”
I stood, clutching the sheaf of papers to my chest. “You’ll receive official notification when the project begins. Merely a formality, it’s all in the agreement. This Area—“ I paused, flipping a page and quickly scanning. “51. Area 51. This will hopefully be the beginning of a fruitful partnership.”
He held out his hand, and, well-schooled in the formalities of these humans, I took it and returned his shake. The faint green tinge of my pale hand contrasted sharply with his wrinkled white hand.
As I left, the eyes of everyone in the bar followed me. I felt some pity for them, yet they were unbelievably crude for a species that held so much potential. Our research would benefit them, so their sacrifice was a necessary one. I felt relieved that, as an ambassador, I was exempt from the exchange.
I stepped onto the dirt. The unfamiliar gravity pulled at me and the air was slightly wrong, but this planet was really not that different from my own. The inhabitants though—I was glad to be leaving.
Prompt: Set your story in the 1880s, in a mid west, tumbleweed town. The doors of the bar open, the piano stops playing and all eyes are drawn to the figure in the doorway…… Now keep going..!
I have to apologise to any US readers as I’m sure I’ve tromped all over US history, as I’m not intimately acquainted with US history but I thought it would be fun to write the story of the first treaty between humans and aliens. I know Nevada isn’t technically the midwest but it needed to be set in Nevada, and I googled and was reassured to find that Nevada had mining towns in the 1880s. I’m sure there are historical holes but I wrote this on the fly with no planning at all, just a “write and see where I end up” approach.