Chariot of the Gods
I knew what people would be looking at during the broadcast and I knew that very few of them would even think about me. I did not regard myself, at the best of times, as a particularly captivating figure so I couldn’t say I blamed them. But there I was, standing with an entourage, of sorts, very still, facing the landing ship. Despite what people often say, since I had taken office I realized that very few people seriously considered what it must be like to be President. Not, I mean, in the sense of what the physical and visual realities of my life is like: nowadays my routines, meetings and decisions are so closely examined that, by the end of my term, people probably have a better grasp of it than I do. But I mean in the more philosophical sense of what it might be like to be a human mind that is put on the cart and trundled through that reality. I sensed that very few people did that, which possibly explains the slightly indeterminate smile that my predecessor had given me as we shook hands privately for the last time before my inauguration.
But however many people there are who can honestly say that they have spent much time inserting themselves into my psyche, I thought that this must be completely different even for them. No other presidents, after all, had been required to visit the middle of Central Park in order to make contact with what was apparently extraterrestrial life. The craft had landed three days previously and had been immediately set upon by scientists and military contractors. All efforts to detect anything from the inside had been unsuccessful for two days, until a signal began to emanate from the ship, broadcast in excellent, if accented, English and Spanish, announcing that it would be opening in twenty-four hours and asking for my presence.
And so here I was: a man who had been told very publicly and privately for the past five years that I was the most powerful man on Earth (whatever the truth of those kindnesses), now having to publicly meet the person who was very obviously my replacement. It was not something which I had expected to deal with, to put it mildly. I have lived a relatively charmed life and have never been in the position where I have known so totally that another being could kill me without compunction, consequences or even effort should they wish to do so. The combination of my previous power and my total lack of it now was discombobulating for those around me and I suspected that most people would therefore find it hard to conduct any kind of empathetic exercise towards me. And, when I tried to consider my situation from a rational point of view, even I didn’t have much empathy with myself. I felt like I was watching myself act and was reminded of all the times I had been drunk: watching my physical body do something ill-advised that my mind was powerless to stop.
Behind me were about two dozen heavily-armed soldiers; behind them were assorted advisors and experts; and behind them were tanks and artillery pieces. There to provide me with security and impress upon our visitors the immense powers that enclosed my office. But I knew, and I assume that everybody else did too, that such weapons were unlikely to be of any use against a race which had crossed the galaxy in technology that completely outstripped ours by what must have been centuries. Not for the first time recently, I found my mind remembering unbidden a paper I had read about what had happened to the Taíno.
The consensus amongst my staff had been that I shouldn’t go, for what are obvious reasons. I knew that many people in the media and the general public were saying that the story of me overruling them and going anyway must be spin and I had once idly told myself that the truth could wait for the memoirs, although the more serious part of me realized that there were unlikely to be any. The truth is that I chose to go in the end not for any particularly brave or dutiful reasons but because it seemed to be strangely pointless for me not to be there. By this point the only thing which got me out of bed and into the office every day was a vague adherence to routine and the opportunity to do something that might either break up that routine or be, in some sense, climactic was too great to pass up.
I stood there, a man selected to lead by just over half of just over half of a country that constituted around 5 percent of the world’s population, waiting to greet a new form of life on behalf of that world. I felt now that that was an almost funny thought and I had never really considered on what narrow foundations my leadership of the free world really rested. Yes, it was certainly a strange thought. But it was not, oddly, all that depressing. It really took the pressure off.
The craft itself was unspectacular and un-aerodynamic: a silver rectangle with clearly defined edges, no wings and engines on the back and bottom. It looked disappointingly like a shoebox. At the front, or what we now assumed to be the front, was what appeared to be a closed landing ramp. There were no windows or markings on it. Nothing to give any indication of what kind of civilization was in it and what would come out.
There was a hiss from the ship as the ramp’s hinges depressurized and began to descend. I felt myself flinch but managed to hold my ground.
It was such a common sight in popular culture that, when a conical spaceship the size of Manhattan appeared in Earth’s orbit over the Atlantic Ocean, there was a period of a few hours when I dismissed it as a hoax. At the time I was in a meeting with four of my aides talking about healthcare reform, a cover version of the conversation we had been having for the past decade of my political career, when a panicked looking assistant came in and told me. We acknowledged the news and went on with our meeting, the five of us even staying behind in the Oval Office for about half an hour afterwards to talk about various topics: the Nationals’ latest failing season, the weather, the most recent round of House primaries which were throwing up some unexpected results. It was only when my Chief of Staff came in and mentioned the spaceship again that I realized that it was strange for it to have dropped so quickly and unobtrusively from my attention.
“Do we not have some kind of protocol to deal with this kind of thing?” I asked when she broached the subject. She shook her head. “You’d be surprised, actually,” she said. “I’ve asked around the CIA, NSA, most branches of the military: nothing. To be honest, I think they all thought that somebody else had a plan.”
“Nothing in Area 51?” She shook her head again.
“Unless they’re still not telling us, of course.”
She frowned. “Why wouldn’t they tell us now?”
The thought crossed my mind that there might have been more than one species of alien visitor but I decided that it probably wouldn’t help much to say that.
The reality of the event having been decided upon, over the next hour numerous military and secret service people came in. They all looked terribly serious and lantern-jawed. All of the words they said were carefully studied, from their reports of initial reconnaissance scans and photos of the ship, the discussions that NASA had so far had with the Russians, the Chinese, the Indians, the Japanese and the Europeans, the public reaction and mood to it all. They sounded like they belonged in a movie that I had seen before (right up to but not including the point where they revealed to me that they’d known about these creatures for decades and just not told me) and it was only after the meeting was over that I realized that they were probably consciously mimicking those things. I wondered if, in response to them, I had been doing so too, creating an unconscious feedback loop of art into reality. But then I realized that all public functions are a kind of performance art, people reinterpreting things that have been done before. Even, it turns out, those things with no precedent. Possibly that accounted for the almost-preternatural calm which settled over those meetings. I liked to imagine that this was because of the serenity that resonated from my personage but I also knew that it was mostly likely because people were, as I was, still confused as to what the correct emotional response to this thing would be.
After about an hour, my meeting with the generals moved on to a teleconference with the Chinese president. At our first meeting five years ago, I had found myself rather liking him. For political purposes we had had to retain a somewhat frosty front for our respective publics, which gave our whole relationship the strange air of an extramarital affair. I can’t remember who said (but it was probably Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde – these kinds of things always are) that it was best to ‘march with the left and dine with the right’ but I’ve never met a group of people who adopt that position more seriously and unscrupulously than the Chinese political elite. As a result, he and I always ended up having quite a good time together. He had once said that he would miss me when I left office before he did and, when I returned the compliment, he had replied, “if I leave office before you, I suspect my family and I will have more important things to worry about than your pity.”
“Mr. President,” I said when he took me off hold.
“Mr. President,” he replied.
I felt myself smile and thought I could hear him do the same on his end.
We introduced one another to the extensive list of people sitting in on each other’s ends of the call before we began to talk about the ship itself. Some of my people from the NSA were convinced that the whole thing might be the result of some Chinese program or another and I was unsurprised to find out that my opposite number apparently thought the same about us. We both, obviously, denied that it was but we both knew that the suspicion would always remain. Pretty soon after that, it became clear that the entire conversation was pointless, beyond giving me the ability to tell reporters with some degree of truth that we were pretty convinced that it wasn’t some Chinese government plot and that our two governments were in discussion as to a possible solution and were sharing information with each other. Not that that would convince everybody, of course, but I felt that it was worth being able to say nonetheless.
The upshot of the meeting was that none of us knew anything about what was going on. NASA and CNSA satellites had scanned the ship but it wasn’t giving out any signals that we could detect. The craft was so strangely designed that it was apparently hard for people to even tell where the engines were.
“It looks like something we would design but also not design,” my Chinese opposite number had said, apparently paraphrasing something that one of his scientists had told him.
The call wound down and we got off the phone after a few hours. I turned to look at my assembled aides.
“So,” I said, “what’s next on the docket?”
A few of them laughed but most looked like they weren’t sure whether I was joking. I wasn’t entirely sure myself.
“All of you, get out. Apart from you,” I said, pointing at my chief of staff.
Everyone else left dutifully and I rested my forehead on the palms of my hands. I could hear her get up from the sofa and walk around the other side of the desk.
“What should we do?” she asked.
I slapped my hands onto my knees and leaned back in my chair. After a while, I shrugged.
“Are you afraid?”
I shrugged again. I said, “I think the parts of me that are, are only afraid because they think they ought to be.”
“And what about the other parts?”
I looked at her for some time.
“Bored,” I said eventually. “I thought that there would be lasers by now.”
She smiled but not unkindly.
“How about you?” I asked. “How are you feeling?”
“I spoke to my Mom this morning; she’s doing okay. Dad’s apparently happy because this all validates what he’s believed in for some time anyway. I checked in on the kids and they seem to think that it’s all quite cool.”
I decided not to mention that she hadn’t answered my question.
“You’ve got to move quickly,” she said. “I’ve already set up a press conference for you in half an hour and have a suggested speech for you. It’s basically the same one we knocked up in the event of a nuclear attack with a few changes but let me know what you think.”
She passed me a double-sided piece of paper across the table and I skimmed it without really looking.
“Is there anything I actually need to do?” I asked.
“Beyond this morning?”
She thought for a minute and then said, “not really. The secret service and NASA are bringing together various teams to coordinate with the Chinese and the other space agencies. Apparently the CIA still aren’t convinced that this isn’t just a Russian launch gone wrong. It probably makes more sense for these scientists to work things together and leave us out of it.”
I nodded again. “But still,” I said, “I feel that I should be doing something. There must be a sensation of movement at least.”
She smiled. “I can set up meetings.”
“Yes, yes. Just invite some of the scientists at Los Alamos or Cape Canaveral up here so that I’m seeing one at least once a day. Make it look like I’m on top of things.”
“Sure,” she said. “And, on top of that, I propose briefings three times a day from Florida and the Pentagon to make sure that you actually are on top of things.”
“Exactly.” I drummed my fingers on the table and then had a thought. “And maybe see if we can have some more interesting people come in here: linguists, zoologists, that sort of thing. They might be interesting to talk to. And Jeff Goldblum too. Let’s see what he’s up to nowadays.”
She laughed slightly. “He’d probably come, you know.”
“I’ve always wanted to meet him.”
There was a pause. Then she said:
“Will that be all, then? Because if it is then we should run through that speech quickly and have those guys come back in for a more in-depth briefing?”
“Sure,” I said but then I added, “actually, I’ve thought of somebody else I’d like to see again.”
When I told her she frowned and said she’d never heard the name before.
“He’s a guy in the History Department, I think, at my old college.” I took out my phone and put his name in a search engine. She came around the desk and stood next to me. The first page I pressed on was a departmental profile with a picture showing a man standing on campus, wearing a brown suede jacket and a black polo-neck, with his hands clasped together in front of his groin. He was balding and his white hair stuck out from the sides and back of his head in thin, white curls. He had a kind but not unserious face, the sort of face whose owner knew more about most topics than his students but would never tell them that.
“We were at college together,” I said, “and I remember a few years ago he published a book about Erich von Daniken.”
“The ancient astronaut guy?”
I nodded. “I think he’d be interesting to talk to. I’d been meaning to catch up with him for a while anyway.”
I looked at the picture on my phone screen. He didn’t look like the sort of person who would be interested in von Daniken and aliens but, then again, I wasn’t sure that I knew what such a person would look like anyway.
“Is he cool?” she asked.
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
She pressed her index finger to her right temple and made small circular motions.
I shrugged. “I think so. He’s a tenured professor at Georgetown, how bad can he be?”
She raised her eyebrows.
I shrugged again. “I think he’s fine. Bring him up here.”
The ship stayed where it was for the next week, hanging in geostationary orbit over the Atlantic. Over the next few days a number of satellites in geosynchronous orbit smashed into it, knocking out communications and satnavs but causing no discernable harm to the ship itself. At first we thought that it was a deliberate attack but the thinking of my advisors was that the damage was so random that they didn’t follow any tactical order we could discern. The other nations around the world were all in various states of panic and, after about a week, one of the group of space-capable countries would suggest at least once a day that we fire a nuclear missile at it. And every day that country would be talked down by the others. The strangest thing was that we could never predict which country it would be each time. When one of my generals had to be forcibly dragged away from the football in my office, I was genuinely surprised.
On the tenth day after the ship appeared, the air traffic controls on all airports on either side of the Atlantic suddenly went down without warning, grounding all flights across the ocean. A few hours later the ship began to move out of its orbit and closer to the Earth. It moved smoothly, slowly and without noise. As it moved through the atmosphere it burned bright in the sky for a few minutes like a second sun, emerging without any noticeable burns or damage. As it continued even further downwards, even more satellites smashed against its hull, drenching the world in blackouts both visible and aural, before coming to a stop about two miles above the ocean’s surface. As was to be expected, the immediate result of this was wild panic everywhere. The various naval taskforces which had been patrolling the Atlantic coalesced into a broad circle around and underneath the ship. Planes flew sorties from their aircraft carriers as close as they could but not to any discernible result. Still nothing came out of it. It just floated there silently.
With civilian communications almost completely crippled, my once-daily briefings to the nation became a near-constant stream of updates from the Oval Office on whatever frequencies or channels were still operational. People had stopped going to work, banks were running out of money, bars and churches couldn’t cope with the increased demand any longer. There was rioting and looting in the big cities. That part was all very much to be expected. But what was not expected was the other side of this daily stream of disasters and breakdowns: the fact that everybody agreed that they were not nearly as prevalent nor as bad as might have been feared. I got the impression that, for the most part, people were going about their lives but had cut off the bits that were, ultimately, unnecessary to them, like their jobs. It was as if two films had been superimposed on top of one another, one where things collapsed and one where things didn’t. Several groups of people seemed to have decided that the ship was a herald of some kind of revelation and began a massive trek to the coasts of the Atlantic. There they built shanty towns all along the coasts and settled into a pattern of worship towards their new gods. But then others just continued to live their lives as if they were on an extended holiday. The parks were full of people enjoying the weather and bars were running out of beer. It was a strange feeling to realize that my near-incessant calls for people to remain calm were entirely unnecessary for the better half of the population.
The most remarkable thing for me was how disassociated I felt myself becoming from events. One of the private pleasures I always allowed myself was, every Friday, reading a cartoon strip written by an artist from Seattle about the previous week’s events in the NBA and even after the ship arrived the artist kept on producing it with no delay, at the same time and on the same website. It took me some time before I realized that this was a strange thing. It was like parallel lives were being lived alongside one another. At times this inability to tell the difference between the world where the ship had arrived and a world where it didn’t – complicated, of course, by the fact that both worlds existed in a world where the ship had arrived – made me feel vaguely psychopathic.
One Friday about a month after the ship had performed its first descent, we managed to find some space in my schedule for the Professor to stop by the West Wing. When he arrived he stood quietly while he was patted down and searched by security, with a vague smile on his face as if it was all a little ridiculous, which I suppose it was. When he was finally allowed to walk into the Oval Office I told my security and aides to leave and come back fifteen minutes before my next meeting.
After that, the Professor and I sat down and looked at one another in the rubbery silence of the Oval Office.
“Good to see you made something of yourself,” he said presently.
I smiled. “So did you.”
“I suppose you’re going to ask me about the von Daniken book?” he asked.
Now it was my turn to shrug. I stood up, walked over to the desk and reached for the intercom.
“Do you want a coffee?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Coffee is fine.”
“We could probably do something stronger,” I said. I found myself standing with my finger hovering over the button, staring out of the windows into the garden. Wind swished the leaves on the branches, making them look for a moment like they were conscious things. I had the strange thought that maybe the ship found all those humans around it just a bit annoying and was instead trying to communicate with the plants. “But I probably have meetings later.”
I felt him watching my back and made my decision.
I buzzed the intercom and asked for a pot of coffee and a six-pack of beer, if we still had any (food shortages were not consistent but they did affect certain items, of which beer was perhaps the least surprising). After they had arrived, the Professor and I opened a beer each and leant back on our sofas for a while before, presently, I said:
“So I suppose the first question I have to ask is: does this ship mean that von Daniken was right?”
He breathed in and was quiet for about ten seconds before he said, “I can understand why that’s a question people are asking but the only answer I can give is ‘no.’ Unless there’s something you’re not telling me, of course.”
There was a pause that he no doubt hoped would be more pregnant than it was before he continued:
“The thing that people need to understand about von Daniken is that he is a fraud: he has literally been convicted of fraud before. He wrote ‘Chariots of the Gods?’ while he was stealing money from the hotel he was working at. So even if the ship opens tomorrow and a life-size Dogu figure waddles out and asks how Jomon civilization is going, that doesn’t mean that anything he has said over his career was correct.”
“A classic example of being right accidentally or for the wrong reasons?”
“So, I actually read your book not that long ago.”
He smiled, grimly. “So you’re the one.”
“I was quite interested,” I said, “in the way that the ancient astronaut thesis developed from the yellow press, into a vaguely respected academic speculation and then metastasized after von Daniken’s book into the realm of kooks and conspiracy theorists.”
“I think the thing to understand,” he said, “about the ancient astronaut hypothesis as a whole is that it had, for a time, a legitimate, albeit speculative, place in academic astronomy. To properly grasp that we really have to try and situate ourselves within a post-war mindset, when technology was radically transforming the way that people lead their everyday lives and the Space Race was ongoing. And in that context the idea that humanity was about to journey out of the solar system and encounter extraterrestrials was really not all that fanciful. Remember that in the original ‘Star Trek’ series the writers decided not to make Spock a Martian because they assumed that humanity would discover actual Martians at some point between the beginning and end of transmission.”
I laughed. “I didn’t know that.”
He smiled and nodded. “And so it seemed vaguely plausible that extraterrestrials may have travelled here. Carl Sagan wrote a book in 1966 where he took the idea seriously, although he was, of course, responsible enough to stress that it was all very speculative.”
We spoke in this way for about half an hour, taking a lengthy diversion along the way to talk about Sagan. Apparently the Professor had met him in the early 1990s when he was a visiting faculty member at Harvard – “you never really saw him on campus unless there was a team with a TV camera following him but I suppose that’s the price of that kind of fame.”
After my aide had popped her head round the door to remind me about my next meeting, the Professor leant back on his chair and asked, “was that good for you?”
“Great. I don’t really get to have these sorts of conversations with people anymore.”
“I did mean to ask why it is that you wanted to see me.”
There was a pause because for a moment I wondered whether he had actually asked me a question.
“I talk to a lot of people nowadays,” I said eventually, “about that ship: zoologists, sociologists, engineers. You name it, I’ve talked to it.”
He narrowed his eyes and said slowly, “but I don’t know anything about it.”
“Neither do they. You’re in good company.”
“I just don’t want to be wasting your time,” he said.
We looked at each other for a while and then a question suddenly came to me:
“What is the single thing that most interests you about the ship?”
“The single thing?” He puffed out his cheeks, looked up at the ceiling and was quiet for about thirty seconds. Eventually he said: “I’m really interested in what kind of religion they have, if any.”
“Oh, that is interesting.”
“So, I’m Jewish by background and agnostic by practice but if the creatures inside that ship turn out to worship a religion based on an all-powerful creator deity who was incarnated as one of them, put to death, resurrected on the third day and whose teachings are passed down by an organization headed by the heirs of one of his closest followers, then I would definitely have to reconsider that.”
“That would prove the existence of God to you?”
“Oh yeah, definitely.”
“That’s interesting. I’ve never thought about it that way.”
He shrugged. “I’ve always thought that the biggest problem with religions is that they all – or most of them – make a claim to universality without their reach being anything close to broad enough to justify that. And if these creatures worship something close to what we do then that would go a long way to dealing with that.”
“A lot of people are going to have egg on their face when they realize that the Ancient Greeks were right after all.”
He laughed. “The thing is,” he said, “because these creatures are so far out of our understanding, it’s probably time we thought less about what we can learn from them and more about what they’re currently learning from us.”
The Professor was ushered out of the room shortly afterwards and I had two more meetings and a few dozen messages and letters to read and respond to that afternoon before I broke for some dinner. I ate the overdone beef with cold mashed potato by myself in front of a pile of papers, sitting in a quiet room filled with one of those long tables made in the Gilded Age, when I got the impression that Presidents did little apart from host dinners for fifty guests. After about half an hour my chief of staff and a horde of aides swarmed into the room.
“Something’s happened,” she said. But then she seemed to get stuck, as if there was too much for her to say and none of it could get out of her mouth.
“Situation Room?” I asked.
I walked down at the head of my aides, more people seeming to join the group from each room we went past, like a trawler scooping its way through the ocean. When we got to the room itself, there was a moment as those who couldn’t come in were silently made aware of that and slunk off sulkily. After what seemed like a long time, we had all taken a seat and I looked at the person who I recognized as the most senior general.
“Show me,” I said
He got up and went over to the nearest screen in the wall. It blinked on and I saw the first images of the transport detaching itself from the larger ship and beginning its journey down towards Central Park.
When the ramp opened, the interior of the transport was initially filled with either smoke or steam – I couldn’t really tell – which made it impossible to detect what was inside. Then, from within the smoke, a dark shadow took shape and became more distinct as it walked out of the transport, slowly and steadily, utterly untroubled by anything. Since I had arrived at the landing site, I had passed so far through the valley of fear that I now felt entirely detached from the emotion even on a conceptual level. The overriding emotion I felt as I watched the figure take shape through the smoke was disappointment at the fact that it was humanoid. Secretly I have been hoping for something a bit more exotic: or at least something with more than four limbs.
The alien was about seven feet tall and encased head to toe in a chunky silver-grey bodysuit and helmet. The suit was mostly unadorned, apart from a few patterned scales on the torso and arms. There were no markings on the helmet, nor any sign of eye holes or a visor. The alien continued its steady walking until it was about ten feet away from me, at which one of the soldiers behind me panicked (or entirely forgot the relative power levels that he was dealing with) and suddenly shouted:
“Not one more step! You stay back!”
The alien stopped still. Its stance was open, its legs planted firmly apart, its shoulders back and its chest out. It wasn’t quite an openly defiant stance but it was something approaching that. It was a stance that was so unconcerned about the display of force it was facing that it was almost funny.
“Put your hands in the air where I can see them!”
The alien’s shoulders rose and fell in a gesture that looked like it might have been a sigh. It raised its hands, slowly but not in a way that I thought was designed to make us feel at ease. I heard a line of guns being cocked behind me and then the crumpled noises of arms in military khakis being raised, following the alien’s hands as it put pressure on either side of its helmet. There was a whirring sound and then the helmet peeled back off the alien’s head revealing what was underneath.
It was a human.
It was definitely a particularly fine human face: perfectly symmetrical, fine boned and almost preternaturally beautiful. But still, nonetheless, an unmistakably human face.
Behind me, the soldiers lowered their guns. The alien starred at us and then began to walk towards me. The soldiers did not raise their guns again. It towered over me and placed a hand on my shoulder, looking at me curiously and I was reminded of the expression on my son’s face when he was playing with a new toy he didn’t fully understand.
“In all of the worlds, I have never seen you before.”
The words were spoken strangely, in a flat tone and with an accent which I was certain had never existed on Earth before. But they were human. Human words spoken, unmistakably, by a human.
“I suppose that that should be of some comfort to you: that, despite the unlikeliness of you ever achieving what you have done, you nevertheless did so. You persevered.”
I didn’t know what to say. Both because of the strangeness of the situation and the fact that the comment did not seem to brook any kind of response.
I could not see but I could easily imagine the team of literally dozens of linguists, astronomers, child behaviorists, zoologists, people from the (relatively) saner end of UFology and figures from any other branch of academia we could think of who were now standing behind me. They had given me a briefing that had lasted the past few days, alongside hundreds of military and intelligence figures, all presenting their information and views on the ship, accompanied by diplomatic and military attaches from virtually every country I had ever heard of. I had read and memorized pages and pages of briefing notes regarding how to greet the alien, a complex series of moves and noises. But nothing had been prepared for the eventuality that these visitors would be human. The kind of human that I had seen almost every day of my life. There was a silence between me and it for some time before the only thing I could think to say was:
The alien looked confused and dropped its arm to its side.
“Hello,” it said.
Having got that greeting out of the way, suddenly the only thing I could think of now were the science fiction potboilers that I had devoured as a teenager but was now too embarrassed to mention to anyone.
“Do you come in peace?” I ventured.
The alien pulled its lips back in what looked like a smile. Its eyes had an expression that might have been genuinely charmed. “What an interesting question and I look forward to answering it.” It looked over my head at the soldiers, tanks and advisers. “But first,” it said, “we should have greater privacy.”
It opened its palm to reveal what seemed to be some kind of holographic interface. The soldiers tried to shout it down but before any intelligible words came to their lips there was a whirring sound followed by the noise of lights, radios and cameras blinking off all around me. I looked above the trees at the skyscrapers and saw that they had all gone dark, like monstrous tablets of stone in some forgotten kingdom.
The alien looked at the soldiers with its blank expression which I now realized was one of pure calmness. It said, “I think you’ll find that your guns will no longer work.”
The soldiers all looked at their guns, some even pulled the triggers experimentally, but it was right.
“I do not intend to cause an outbreak of physical violence but I must make clear that I can and will kill any and all of you in self-defense should I feel physically threatened in any way.”
After our conversation was over, it was the use of the word ‘outbreak’ in that sentence which was the moment that I remembered most vividly.
The alien ran its fingers through the holographic display and six spheroid shapes floated silently out of the transport and formed a circle around me, it and the transport. Then they buried themselves in the ground and, moments later, sheets of what looked a bit like corrugated steel burst from the ground, fencing the two of us off from the outside world. There were shouts from the soldiers and I heard a few bangs on the outside of the fence but the alien did not look concerned by them and so neither did I. I found myself thanking myself that I no longer understood what fear was.
Two more spheroids floated out of the transport and unfurled into a pair of utilitarian-looking armchairs.
“Please, sit,” the alien said, gesturing at the chairs like a waiter. “We have studied your cultures very carefully and I understand that this setting may help to create a sense of familiarity and comfort for you.”
I walked over to the nearest chair and ran my fingers along the back. “Are you going to kill me?” I asked.
At the time I didn’t really know why I had asked that and, for the first time, the alien looked genuinely taken aback.
“Am I giving you the impression that I intend to kill you personally in the near future?” he asked. “I can assure you that such a course of action is not my intention.”
I thought about pointing out how it was hard to avoid that impression but instead I felt that my last question had been, somehow, rude. I mumbled something that was more a noise than a series of words and sat down on the chair.
The alien observed me and then sat down opposite, exactly coping my posture.
I shifted my pose experimentally, folding my left leg over my right.
Without changing its expression, the alien did the same.
“Excuse me,” I said, both confused and not confused about why I had asked him to excuse me. “But would you mind not doing that? It’s extremely distracting.”
The alien pulled a face that I thought I recognized as confusion.
“Copying me,” I said. “Please stop copying my movements.”
The alien unfolded his legs and sat ramrod straight in his chair. “My deepest apologies,” he said. “Our understanding was that such mimicry is common in your culture.”
“What do you mean, ‘your understanding’?”
The alien pulled the same expression, which I now felt confident noting down as confusion. Now I realized what he reminded me of: an academic whose fieldwork isn’t quite tallying with his theoretical conjectures and literature review.
“Before our vessel entered this planet’s atmosphere we have confined our studies of your societies to only the most general level of oversight. But since we came in closer we have been able to conduct a series of more detailed observations and we had concluded that this behavior would put you at ease.”
For some reason the only thing I could concentrate on was his comment about a series of more detailed observations. “Does that mean that all of these cranks back there were telling the truth?” I asked.
The alien was quiet and I was reminded that, despite my guesses, I could not reliably read his expression.
“Those people who claim to have seen aliens before now, that they’ve been making me take meetings with,” I said, jabbing my thumb over my shoulder. “Does that mean that all of those people weren’t crazy?”
“We have not sent anybody else down to this planet since we arrived in the atmosphere.”
“So you didn’t come to this planet in, like, the ‘50s or the ‘60s?”
The alien raised his eyebrows and twitched his arms in a motion that may have been the approximation of a shrug. “In what you describe as the twentieth century, you mean?”
“No,” the alien said. “Unless there were individuals outside of my knowledge, which is unlikely, no ships have entered this planet’s atmosphere before my own.”
“So they are all frauds?”
The alien nodded. “I have not examined all of their cases individually but I think that would be a reasonable conclusion.”
I suddenly felt confused, as if I was drunk and couldn’t properly organize my own thoughts. I beat the sides of my skull and tried to force my thoughts into a regular order. “I can’t believe that I’m sitting here talking to an alien about UFologists,” I said, at first to myself and then only realizing that I was speaking out loud when I was halfway through the sentence.
“Why do you use the term ‘alien’?”
I looked confused and found that I could only gesture emphatically but vaguely at the alien and his transport.
“I am not an alien,” he said, his tone so unmodulated so as to be almost excessively matter of fact. “On a genetic level I am identical to you.”
I froze and realized that my face must have looked blank. But I don’t know why I did this. I had known that piece of information. As soon as the alien had taken off his helmet I had known all of these things.
The alien did not say anything to comment on my expression but it occurred to me that that might have been because he had learned that it was polite not to. “I mean to say,” he continued, “that, while I am an alien in the sense that I have not physically set foot on the surface of this country or this planet until today, I am in fact genetically human – as are all of the other crew-members of my ship.”
I didn’t understand and I said so. And as I spoke I tried to understand in what way I might have been tricked, in what way I might have misunderstood the incredibly plain words that the alien had spoken. Each word I said was followed by such a pause that as I heard them they sounded like isolated statements in and of themselves.
The alien paused and shifted his posture on the seat, slouching slightly and crossing his legs at the knees. It took me a while to realize that he was probably consciously imitating images he had studied of storytellers down through history. It was bizarre and, in other circumstances, might even have been funny.
“I assume that an educated man like you will have heard of an apparent logical contradiction in astronomy. I understand that on this planet it was formulated by an individual named Enrico Fermi and so is named after him. The paradox postulates that, given the size of this galaxy, the number of stars similar to this planet’s Sun and the number of life-sustaining planets probable in such a scenario, it is apparently unlikely that this planet has not been visited by extraterrestrials.”
“Yes, it’s come up.”
“The answer to this paradox is two-fold. Humanity, in the species-wide sense that you understand it, did not originate on this planet, a fact that I assume has already dawned on you. In fact, humanity first evolved from primates many hundreds of millions of years ago on a separate planet that we called Earth. Human civilization went through a variety of stages of development and change, many of which bore some relation to periods of this planet’s history that would in all likelihood be familiar to you. Eventually, technology advanced to such a stage that humanity began looking out into space and considering whether its destiny really was tied to one planet. And, responding to humanity’s natural curiosity and resourcefulness, that goal was soon accomplished and the first colony and research ships sent out to explore new planets.”
“So we’re just a forgotten colony?”
He smiled again. I thought that I must be getting better at reading his expressions because I thought that I could detect a hint of indulgence behind that smile. But then I wondered whether he had he had simply got better at conveying emotion.
“No,” he said. “Not quite. We could never forget you.”
“So what happened?”
“Nobody knows for sure,” the alien said. “Too many details of what that time was like have been lost and so the causes must remain unclear. For some reason, there was a cataclysm back on Earth, which ended with the destruction of the planet and the extermination of 99% of humanity. The ship above this planet was one of a small fleet which was all that was left of the entire species. By that point we had carried out a number of explorations and probes around the galaxy and had yet to find any other intelligent life. As far as we could tell, we were the only intelligent creatures left in the galaxy.”
I did not know what to say and so said nothing.
The alien paused, although whether to allow me to process this tale or out of respect for his own grief, and then continued:
“Of course, all of us still alive understood the magnitude of our task as being nothing less than the preservation and perfection of intelligent life in the whole of known existence. We had lost the vast majority of the information about our recent past but we knew almost everything about the circumstances in which humanity had first evolved as a species. And, what’s more, we knew how they could be replicated. The survivors understood that it was imperative that they make efforts to re-populate the human race: that the galaxy could not be allowed to go silent. But they were also all scientists and agreed that such an important task could not be left to the vicissitudes of chance.”
I had realized what he was going to say but I also found that I could not remember any words to speak.
“So we instituted a protocol whereby a habitable planet was seeded with the relevant tools to create human evolution. We then sealed that planet’s solar system within a planetarium in order to prevent the developing Earth from inopportune contact with either us or any other extraterrestrial life that we have not identified. Beyond a certain distance, your observations of the known galaxy are subtly altered facsimiles of reality created in order to prevent you from observing the other civilizations we are attempting to grow.”
“To ensure that the experiment has scientific validity, we had to run the largest possible number of simulations and the urgency of our task means that we had to run them in the shortest possible time. As a result, we have a policy of running a minimum of ten simulations simultaneously.”
“I see,” I said, with the strange feeling that such a conclusion should have been obvious to me from the moment the ship first appeared.
“Each simulation was studied as humanity made its way through various developmental stages, until a point arrived at which it could either be introduced to its true destiny or would otherwise have to be terminated.”
I didn’t say anything. The alien looked at me for some time, as if he expected me to have some sort of rejoinder to this. When I did not be continued:
“And that is, I’m afraid, the topic of our discussion today. Over the nearly 200,000,000 years that humanity has been conducting these simulations, we have consistently hit the same problem about 2,500,000 years after the development of Homo habilis, whereby human civilization on a global level simply becomes too destructive and it either destroys itself, often taking its chosen planet with it, or begins to pose a potential danger to humanity as an extrasolar race. As such, every single simulation has had to be terminated at around this time. A number of my colleagues are beginning to hypothesize that this cycle may be thought of in terms of a simple system dynamic and that, once humanity has reached a certain level of development, the advanced societies in which they live and the technology that they have under their control means that the ‘system’ which sustained life on their planet breaks in some fundamental way. For many years I have not been convinced by this theory but I am afraid to say that it is one whose validity I am increasingly coming to consider.”
I still didn’t say anything for a while. For a second I found myself thinking back to a conversation I had had in law school with a sociology major who had propounded fundamentally the same theory. I wondered how smug it would make him to hear all of this.
“And you’re here to destroy us?” I ventured, eventually, when the alien did not continue his speech.
“Yes. The way that life has developed on this Earth means that it will be rendered uninhabitable well before the time comes that you are sufficiently advanced to leave it permanently. As such, the decision has been taken to terminate this simulation earlier than necessary, such that the resources of this Earth can be used for the next one. Our studies of your society indicate that the person in your role remains the most influential individual in the world by a narrow margin and so I am having this discussion with you as a courtesy.”
I stood up and stared at the alien. Because it felt like the right thing to do, I began to shout at him and wag my finger. I’m not sure I ever really meant the emotions which lay behind what I said and I certainly didn’t believe that they contained any genuine threat. “We will fight you,” I said. “You can’t come down here and tell us all this and not expect us to defend ourselves.”
The alien didn’t look concerned about this and I didn’t really expect him to. “I have not told anything to anybody on this Earth other than you. You are, of course, free to do what you wish with that information. You may wish to organize some kind of defense – you would not be the first Earth to do that – but I can assure you that our technology is so far advanced that any attack on our ship would be a useless gesture. In twelve hours we will release a gas into the atmosphere that will kill all human life. The process will be quick and painless: most individuals will be unaware that anything is happening to them. After that, we will spend a few centuries cleaning the atmosphere and removing evidence of your presence in order to make this Earth ready to seed humanity again.”
I sat down. My shoulders and back felt like I had been in the gym for a long time and could no longer face the vague challenge of keeping me upright. Again, the two of us were quiet for some time. I got the impression that the alien was being, in his own way, kind.
“Is there no way I could change your mind?” I asked.
Now the alien did pull a face that I recognized as surprise. “No,” he said.
“How many times have you done this before? Could you at least tell me that?”
The alien looked at its interface again. “This has been simulation number 7,941.”
“Wow,” I said, mostly to myself. “That’s a lot of simulations.”
“It is an important task. And we are patient because we have to be.”
There was a pause and then the alien stood up and began walking back up the ramp.
“Could you at least tell me your name?” I asked.
The alien turned around. For the first time he looked vaguely confused. “Would that be of emotional assistance to you?” he asked.
I honestly didn’t know and said so.
“Did I ever ask you for your name?” the alien asked.
“No. No you didn’t.”
The alien turned back around and completed his walk up the ramp. The wall and the seats slowly collapsed again into their spheroids and flew back into the ship. The ramp closed after it and the ship’s engine began to rumble and lift off again.