And now: Galaxy Games: The Challengers
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88 hours before the most important event in human history, three dozen of the best young soccer players in Brazil slept soundly after another exhausting day of games and drills. In the entire cabin of boys, only Matheus lay with his eyes open, unable to get back to sleep. To quiet his mind, he reviewed every pass, every kick, and every header he had made during the day. He could have done so much better, and he only had until the end of the week to impress the scouts. Three or four boys at most from their entire group would be invited to join the soccer academy, to train for a spot on a professional team.
Matheus tried to remember one particular drive he had made down the field. Had he maneuvered around the left side of the defender or the right? Should he have gone the other way instead? He wouldn't know for sure unless he acted it out, so he pulled back the cover and crept out of bed.
Matheus moved between the bunks from one side of the cabin to the other. Left then right then a pass over the middle of the field. He moved his feet to remember the movement and turned sharply when he almost ran into the cabin wall. This won't work at all, he thought. He needed more room than the inside of a cramped sleeping cabin, so he carefully pushed the door open and stepped outside.
Pass to the right side. Get back into position. Move, move, move! Matheus ran barefoot across the grass until he felt sure he remembered the entire sequence. It would have worked better if he had passed to Sonho on the left side--he'd been in position to shoot for the goal.
A high-pitched noise sounded from above him. Matheus looked up and saw a figure sitting on the roof of the cabin. As he watched, the figure put his hands to his mouth and the strange noise echoed through the clearing again.
"Weez?" Matheus called quietly. "Weez? Is that you?"
The figure said nothing, but Matheus couldn't imagine anyone but Weez making bird-calls to the sky in the middle of the night. Weez was probably the best player in the tryouts, but such a flake that the others mostly kept away from him.
Matheus found the ladder Weez must have used to get onto the roof. He climbed upward and, balancing carefully, crept forward along the slanted rooftop. "Weez?" he asked again. The other boy continued to stare upward into the distance.
Matheus reached out with one finger and tapped Weez's shoulder. The boy started in surprise like he was waking from a dream, and windmilled his arms to keep from falling. "What? Matheus? Were you trying to kill me?"
Matheus struggled to regain his own balance. "I'm sorry, Weez. I just wanted to know what you were doing up here. Can't you sleep either?"
Weez shook his head. "Who could sleep under so many stars?"
Matheus looked up at the sky. There was no moon, and the stars blazed far brighter here than they ever did under the lights and haze back home in São Paulo.
"I wonder if he's up there somewhere," said Weez.
Weez fell silent for a long moment. He appeared to be concentrating on a particular point in the sky, but Matheus saw nothing special there. "Would you like to hear a story, Matheus?"
"To help me get back to sleep?" Matheus shrugged. "I guess anything is worth a try."
"All right." The other boy spoke so quietly that Matheus had to strain to hear him. "A couple years ago, my parents left me and my little brother for a summer with our Tio Lucas and Tia Julia. They live up in the north, in a farm village at the edge of the rainforest."
"Sounds nice," said Matheus.
"It was nice. Real nice. Until one clear starry night... A noise woke me up, something like a train whistle but with a strange sort of echo." He placed both hands in front of his mouth and made the same sharp sound as before.
The sound sent chills down Matheus's spine.
"Something like that," Weez explained. "I've been practicing but I can never get it exactly right. When I heard that sound, I had to go see what it was. Tio Lucas and Tia Julia were still snoring, so I thought I could sneak out without them knowing--except that Gustavo was also awake. I knew he'd start screaming if he saw me leave, so I took him with me."
Weez's voice choked up. Matheus wondered if he should say something but the other boy cleared his throat and continued. "I was nine years old and Gustavo was three. I took his arm and led him with me into the forest."
"Did you find out what was making that noise?" asked Matheus.
Weez nodded glumly. "It wasn't easy. As we travelled along a forest path, the train whistle kept getting louder, then going away, and then coming again from a different direction. It was so frustrating! We wandered in circles for a long time, until Gustavo wanted to go back to the house. I tried carrying him, but he was so heavy. I stopped in a clearing to rest for a moment--only for a moment--and that's when the high-pitched whistle sounded again, directly over our heads, loud enough to hurt my ears."
Weez stopped speaking and looked down at his hands.
"Was it a train?" Matheus tried to imagine a set of tracks winding through the rainforest canopy.
Weez shook his head. "It was shaped more like a speedboat than anything else. It glowed from the inside like a paper lantern, and there were alien symbols on the side. Like this." He traced a set of shapes with his finger in the air.
"Alien, you say? Was it a spaceship?"
"What else could it be?" Weez asked sharply.
"Sorry," said Matheus. "Go on. What happened next?"
Weez bit his lip. "As I looked up, the ship got brighter and brighter until it lit up the entire clearing like daytime. I couldn't stand to keep my eyes open, so I squeezed them shut. The next thing I knew, I was in a hospital bed and it was three days later."
Matheus stared at Weez. "Don't look at me like that," said the other boy. "People always look at me like that, and I'm sick of it."
"Sorry," said Matheus, looking away. "But come on, Weez. That story can't be true."
"It is," Weez insisted, in a voice as serious as any Matheus had ever heard. "And you know what else?"
"What?" asked Matheus.
"They never found Gustavo."
Matheus shivered. "That's a horrible story! How is that supposed to help me sleep?"
Weez shrugged. "It's not. It's supposed to keep you up here with me for the rest of the night. That way I'll have a witness when they come back."
Both boys silently turned their eyes skyward. High above them, somewhere between Saturn and Jupiter, an alien spaceship hurtled toward Earth.
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