SF Best Foot Forward

Editor’s Foreword

Shir o shakar, or “milk and sugar,” is the Persian origin of the word “seersucker.” The modern usage of the word describes a fabric with a wrinkled appearance. More common in the southern United States than in the north, possibly because the fabric improves heat dissipation from the skin–perfect for warmer climates!

The great expanse of lawn had been immaculately trimmed, not one blade of fescue out of place. Surrounding the twenty acres of ceremonial greensward were flower after flower in precise rows–roses, tulips, lilies, daffodils, geraniums–transplanted for the momentous occasion, each representing the finest modern horticulture had to offer. In the middle of all this was an octagonal-shaped tarmac where the shuttle would be touching down shortly. Hundreds of miles above (so we’d been told) was the lightship that had brought our visitors from so very, very far away.

I was just one of the thousands in the crowd–all of us curious to witness First Contact firsthand. Since I was a member of the hoi polloi, I didn’t have a ringside seat, though near the tarmac seating had been set up for the politicians, captains of industry and other distinguished guests. So far away was the President that, though I could see the black-suited secret service agents flanking him, I couldn’t make out his face. Fortunately, huge video screens had been erected at intervals around the greensward, and several video crews were atop cranes to capture the upcoming Event. It was certain that those of us back here in the one-dollar seats (actually we were standing) wouldn’t be able to make out the alien ambassador without such technological forethought.

Everyone was in their Sunday best, as it were. A woman in front of me was wearing a cheery sun dress patterned with flowers; a brand-new hat crowned her recently coifed (obviously for this occasion) hair. It wasn’t until she spoke that I got the impression that this probably wasn’t her normal appearance. “Some sort of shapeshifters, the TV said,” she drawled to the man beside her. “What the hell’s a shapeshifter anyway?” Her pumps were also new, and by the way she was wobbling, I could tell she wasn’t used to high heels.

“It means they can change their shape at will,” said the man beside her. “Take on the appearance of anything or anybody they want.” He too was gussied up for the occasion, wearing a brown suit that hugged him a little too tightly. One got the feeling that upon olfactory inspection, the scent of mothballs would flood the nasal passages.

“Not exactly,” said the man in the seersucker in front of them, turning. He had a carnation on his lapel that looked too perfect to be real. “From what I understand they have merely chosen forms that are like our own. It’s an involved process that takes weeks, and then their minds are transferred into these ‘human’”–thin fingers curled to close the word in quotes–“bodies. But it’s not like they can transform themselves before our very eyes. Experts say that they are choosing forms that most likely mirror our own. What they think the typical Earth person looks like.”

“I wonder what this ambassador from outer space will look like,” the wobbling woman said.

“Probably much like the President,” said the first man.

“Oh,” said the second man, “I was hoping he’d look rather like me.” He offered a supercilious grin as he ran a finger along the arm of his seersucker jacket.

This was how it’d been since we had learned about the aliens’ impending arrival. America wasn’t the only country that the aliens were sending ambassadors to. At various locations around the globe, people were gathered in scenes like this to meet the ambassadors from the stars. London, Moscow, Paris, Münich, Cairo, Beijing, New Delhi and Tokyo were all scheduled for their own First Contact ceremony, and, it was assumed, each ambassador would most likely take the form of the people he, she, or it was about to meet. Speculations abounded. Would the ambassador to England wear a monocle? Would the ambassador to Egypt wear a turban? No one knew.

What everyone did know, however, was that company was coming to dinner. Very special, prestigious company. Consequently, the world had taken on a new face. Here in America everyone had mown their lawns, washed their cars, and gone out and bought a new outfit for the Event. Even I, who usually didn’t go in for such nonsense, had put on my best jeans and a clean, collared shirt. Proper decorum had spread like a contagion.

I guess all in all it wasn’t such a bad thing. People were treating each other differently as a result. Those who’d normally displayed prejudices against those different than themselves had discovered a new sense of Political Correctness. Disparate groups, be they ethnic, social, class-oriented or sexual-persuasion-oriented, were embracing one another with open arms in an attempt to show these visitors how evolved we people of Earth truly were. And though it was a refreshing sight, I did feel that after the aliens were among us and we’d grown used to their presence, many would go back to throwing bricks and hurling insults at one another. It’s hard to escape generations of bigotry just because someone important comes to dinner.

And then it happened–

Descending from the sky was the ambassador’s shuttle. The crowd moaned in awe as the dark pinpoint above grew in size. At first it looked oval in shape, but as it descended further it appeared as if it were an inverted ice cream cone. Landing struts extended as it silently–a silence that was almost frightening due to its incongruity to the huge craft–touched down. Then a ramp extended and a small figure strode down the incline.

I looked to one of the giant video screens to see the ambassador better. But the camera crews were having problems with the video, and the image on the large screen was a blurry jumble, though through the P.A. system footsteps were audible. By the time the alien had reached the tarmac, however, the video crews had solved their technical difficulties, and the image of the ambassador was solid, in focus.

Everyone stood there in silence, unable to believe what they were seeing. No, he didn’t look like the President. Nor was he short and gray with a big head and slits for eyes. Nor was he a tall spindly creature with arms that were way too long.

What did he look like? Well, he definitely looked human. He was a short, overweight, balding man with bandy legs. His huge, hairy belly and belly button were protruding below a too-tight T-shirt that said: I ONLY CAME FOR THE FREE BEER! in bold letters. He didn’t look like he was in need of a brew, however, because in one hand he held up a can of ale, and in the other he lugged a six pack.

At this point I half expected him to say something profound like, “Greetings, good people of Earth,” or “This is the first day of a long, prosperous friendship,” or possibly the old standby, “We come in peace.” But he didn’t say anything. He merely took a big gulp of his beer (excess dribbling down his chin), swallowed, and then let out a loud belch.


About the Author

Born in 1957, Marshall Payne has led a colorful life. He has worked as a touring musician, music producer, sound technician, a salesman, and a waiter. In 1999 he committed himself to speculative fiction and has never looked back. Since then he has written over fifty short stories and seven novels, the last three he’s looking to publish. (The first four were merely for practice.) When not writing, he likes to watch Spurs basketball with his cat C.C. and eat popcorn. Fiction of his has appeared in print and online in The Sword Review April 2006, and online on Nanobison. He is also a reviewer for Tangent Short Fiction Review. He can be reached at marshallpayne@mail.com.


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Illustration by Matthew Laznicka of Basement Productions. Colorization by Dan C. Rinnert.

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