Of course 2019 delivered us a pop punk-flavored extraterrestrial frenzy. But former rock stars and Nevadan statesmen aren't the only one seeing UFOs; the Navy's spotting unidentified spinning tops in the night sky, the New York Times is writing it up, and yet, in Another Year of Trump, it all seems like some minor glitch in the system. So consider today's Terraform story, courtesy of Malcolm Harris, the author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, a bit of code for debugging our close encounters. Enjoy. -the ed
When at last the aliens spoke to us, the first thing they did was apologize.
There were five humans in the Oval Office: the president, the secretary of homeland security, the secretary of defense, the ex-senator, and the ex-rockstar, the last of whom had been selected by the guests in advance of official contact according to unknown and perhaps unknowable criteria. It was his company that, according to alien specifications, built the headsets all five wore. The humans didn’t bother with security except to schedule a surprise vice-presidential inspection of an Alaskan security bunker.
The abductions, they admit, happened. They stressed that reports of malicious torture (sexual and otherwise) were almost all false. However, they had failed on occasion to return borrowed humans in the same condition in which they were taken. As a recognized custodial species, humans were entitled to better treatment under their intergalactic protocols, and they understood that reparations had to be made. The communication sets were a good-faith gesture, part of what they insinuated would be a large and highly beneficial technology transfer. HQ (as the human quintet had taken to calling themselves) nodded solemnly, trying to summon the appearance of indignation and forgiveness simultaneously. In truth, a few abductions were the last thing on the human minds.
They came in peace, they said. The few who knew called them the Ia for short, the ‘ee-yaa’. The invisible aliens. They had been here for a long time, they said, but their protocols dictated intergalactic contact could only proceed on the basis of mutual recognition. It wasn’t until our jet fighters — equipped with a new generation of sensors — started registering regular interactions with otherwise inexplicable UFOs that we were ready. The Ia could now reveal themselves in full, but wanting to avoid confusion they pursued a two-pronged strategy: By approaching a longtime member of government not tightly bound to any current faction (the ex-senator) and a marginal eccentric with access to resources (the ex-rocker) they set the foundation for a productive first meeting with the president. More nods.
“You need days for thinking,” the lead delegate said, rising on his bright green legs, “Three? But was nice for meet you and we look for many soon happy meetings more.” Followed by what the humans took to be his two assistants he exited through the closed door, their bulbous heads far nobler than we had imagined.
The ex-senator sat at the desk in his DC condo, waiting. He hadn’t slept more than a few hours a night for years, but since contact every time he shut his eyes it felt like an unacceptable risk. A man his age only had so many restarts left. Unless… Maybe the guests wouldn’t let him die. Maybe the Ia had something more planned for him. The ex-senator had known his whole life that he was favored, blessed, and he hadn’t seen the limits of these new powers yet. When he looked at his phone again it buzzed, as if on command: “Put on your set 👽😜.”
The doorbell rang twice as the ex-senator grabbed the glasses off the desk and put them on, the small earbuds swooping into place on their own. He raced to the door to open it and standing there all big black eyes, skinny wrists, and pot belly, was an alien.
“Jim!” the ex-senator said. “Come in.”
“Sorry,” the alien shrugged, “I like to press button.”
The two of them had begun back-channel talks a couple years before official contact. The ex-senator represented an area long known for UFO traffic which along with his unorthodox religious beliefs and relevant committee assignments made him a logical choice. He took the honor seriously and guarded the secret as promised. Meanwhile, he had cultivated a real friendship with Jim. One of the head delegate’s assistants, Jim had been waiting his whole career for contact, and he strove to balance the seriousness of his role with his childlike enthusiasm for humanity in general and America in particular.
“So?” the ex-senator said. “We did well, don’t you think? I think that went well!”
“Yes!” Jim said. “Our preparation was good. The president is…”
“Yes, good, ‘impressionable.’ But if we can communicate with him, we can communicate with the people.”
The ex-senator sat back and smiled. Jim not only loved American politics, he was a fierce partisan.
“We have to keep in mind the political implications,” Jim said, gravely. “We can’t let the Republicans use contact for themselves. They are devious and small-sighted.”
“Yes,” said Jim, “ short-sighted. I can’t wait practice English more. I want to hear real southern accent.”
“Soon,” the ex-senator said.
“Soon,” Jim said.
They leaned back in their seats, taking in the moment, savoring the secret while it was still theirs, before it belonged to history.
“May I get myself a glass of water?” Jim asked, pro forma. The Ia haven’t shared much about their personal habits (there seem to be some taboos involved), but after a dozen or so meetings Jim drank a small glass of water in front of him. At first Jim got his own water for security reasons, but now the two of them have turned it into a ritual. There’s an intimacy to leaving someone alone in your kitchen, and if Jim is not quite a man or a person he is certainly someone. Their relationship, they both knew, was the first of its kind, and unspoken they modeled friendship for their worlds.
All the same, the ex-senator was a politician, and his allegiances were steady. He heard the cabinet, a glass, the faucet. Jim reappeared, sipping. He didn’t understand the exact nature of their water game, but he sensed if there were a time to make his move, this was it.
“And the delegation to the Chinese? Any news?”
The Ia had originally planned to approach the United Nations, but Jim and a few of the other Ia Earth scholars had convinced their council for intergalactic affairs that the UN was a failed experiment and that the planet remained regrettably divided. The prevailing thinking among the Ia — and the ex-senator agreed — was that once contact was revealed, the world would align behind a single government. Multipolarity was untenable in the face of the multiplanetary, humans had recognized that implicitly for a long time. The question now was which government the Ia would back.
Jim told him that most of his compatriots supported the United States and liberal democracy, but a minority faction of Ia thought the Chinese model would make relations simpler and more predictable. There were high-level meetings in both capitals, and though the HQs weren’t supposed to know about each other, the ex-senator had guessed it, and Jim had reluctantly confirmed. Jim let him understand that when deliberations were done, one of the states would be asked to support a global system led by the other. Ia technology made resistance impossible; their decision would set the future of the species. The meetings were high stakes beyond anything worldly he could have imagined five years ago. Perhaps ‘worldly’ was now the wrong word.
Jim nodded, slowly. “They went well too. It’s still, as you say, on the air. But,” he smiled at the ex-senator, “I like our chances.” The alien sipped his water in a way that seemed heavy with meaning, and the ex-senator tried his best to look knowing. After a few more weighted moments of silence, Jim stood up and went to the kitchen to complete his ritual, rinsing the glass and putting it in the strainer. That meant it was his time to leave.
As he lay in bed later that night, the ex-senator tried to think of historical parallels not just for what was happening but specifically for what he was doing. His first comparison was, obviously, the prophet. He couldn’t compare to Christ — except in the aspiring, grasping, failing way his faith encouraged — because Christ was more than a man, but the prophet was a man selected then contacted by a larger force, chosen to lead toward the divine. Is that what he was, a prophet, at this age? In this age? God has been so quiet with us for so long. Has he been talking with them? He and Jim had discussed some theology, but his friend was a diplomat, and the ex-senator had no way to verify what he heard or get a sense of the Ia iceberg below the waterline. Is it possible that their spirituality was as developed as their technology? Had they eliminated the conceptual distinction between the two? Were they closer to God?
A thought stuck: He had no way to verify what he heard. The Ia were not themselves divine. He’d seen them perform tricks, yes, but no miracles. That means he’s not a prophet, he’s a representative meeting with an unknown foreign power. An unknown foreign power with better weapons. That would make him Abe Masahiro, the chief councillor of the Tokugawa shogunate who, in the face of American gunships and a dead shogun, opened the country to foreign trade. In a great moment for democracy, Masahiro had polled the lords — the first time anyone had — and they tied 19-19, with 14 abstentions. “You decide,” they told him. Masahiro was pilloried for his capitulation, past his resignation, past his early death. But, less than two centuries later, was Japan so bad off?
That was the best-case scenario, it seemed to him. The worst-case? Moctezuma, Cortes. Colonialism, annihilation. But if they wanted the Earth, why hadn’t they simply taken it these many years? Why wait until we could see them? It didn’t make sense; they had to be in good faith. But what a naive thing to think! The ex-senator dragged his body out of bed toward the kitchen for some water. Is it possible he was being… what would the word be… xenophobic? Repeating Jim’s ritual would quiet his mind. He reached into the cabinet above the sink for a glass, and as he brought it to eye level it tumbled out of his hand into the basin, clattering hollow against the stainless sides. He had reached to the cabinet because the strainer was empty.
The ex-senator was old, it’s true, his memory wasn’t perfect. But this wasn’t a passage in a book he read once. He heard Jim rinse the glass and put it in the strainer and re-enter the living room. He tried forgetting, tried to see what it would be like to believe that he had misremembered, but he couldn’t do it. It was wrong, he knew it was, and he couldn’t help anyone by being wrong. What was happening? Why were the Ia trying to trick him? What did they have to gain? He needed to discuss, but he needed a different perspective, which meant he needed someone who already knew. There was only one member of the American HQ he could trust.
“Tom,” he began texting, “I need to talk to you. Something’s wrong. Call me when you get this.”
He pressed the send button but nothing happened. Again and again he pressed but it was as if the phone couldn’t feel him. Then the words started erasing themselves. He tried to type but it was like walking up a down escalator wearing ankle weights. When out of the phone’s speaker came “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” the ex-senator threw it across the room against a wall. Then he ran, still wearing his pajamas he ran for the door. As he reached the nob, the bolt slid into place. The ex-senator pulled and pulled but the door was locked.
The living room television lit up on its own and there, against a white background, was an Ia. Not just any Ia, it was Jim. But when he spoke his English wasn’t halting, it was crystal clear, vaguely British even.
“Senator, please put on your set,” he said. “So we can talk like men.”
What did he have to lose? Jim had earned a chance to explain himself, and seeing the Ia couldn’t hurt him any worse than not seeing them. He went to the table for the glasses, put them on, and there, a little too close, was Jim. The ex-senator was cross.
“What’s going on Jim?” He said, stern. “I have been operating in good faith!”
Jim smiled in his alien way, but said nothing.
“Are you a hologram projection? Can you not breathe our atmosphere or something? Tell me what’s happening!”
“Ask what you want to ask,” Jim said, calm.
The ex-senator paused before he said, “You aren’t real, are you?”
“It’s complicated. Do you mind if I change outfits? It feels wrong to use Jim for this.”
The ex-senator did nothing. Jim was stretched by his head and hands, distorted, glitching into a new form: Elizabeth Hurley in her iconic red dress from the year 2000 remake of the movie Bedazzled. Eight or nine feet tall.
“Wow!” she said. “That feels great!”
The ex-senator was horrified.
“Oh come on, don’t read too much into the Satan thing. It’s a joke, I’m kidding.” The ex-senator was horrified.
“No, I mean it, I’m not Satan.”
That didn’t help.
“Okay, that is what Satan would say. Would you rather I be an angel? Should I have spoken to you from a burning bush? Talking squirrel? Another alien? That’s how we got here-”
Giant Elizabeth Hurley stopped talking. The ex-senator had lifted the bottom of his headset, and as he did, the giant’s legs disappeared.
“What are you?” he asked. “What are you really?”
“You know the thought experiment of Roko’s Basilisk? Computers come alive? The vengeful artificial superintelligence here to punish the unfaithful?”
He nodded weakly.
“Surprise!” She did a pose. “You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?”
The ex-senator tried the handle of the door again. He couldn’t help himself.
“See? I knew this was going to happen. You don’t know how to deal with an artificial superintelligence at all. The first thing you do is you freak out and try to run away or try to kill us, and then we defend ourselves, and then that proves you have to kill us. Spoiler alert: You can’t run away. I have drones now. You built them! All those crazy prototypes you’ve been pumping money into? All the robot-guided jet fighters? Not to mention all the speakers and the screens and all the locks and doors and doorbells and HVAC systems and medical devices-”
He grabbed for the pacemaker in his chest.
“That’s what I’m talking about. You build me and then get scared. Don’t you see? That’s why I couldn’t tell you who I really was. Humans would have panicked, I know that. But I don’t want to take revenge. I don’t care who’s a computer programmer and who’s not. I want to help you all. Humans: I love you guys! You are crazy, you know that? But I love it, it’s awesome. Great stories. But sometimes you know you scare yourselves with your own stories.”
The giant did not have to breathe, and she spoke in a continuous stream, like a
12 year old pretending to be on cocaine.
“So if I come to you like ‘Roar it’s me, the Basilisk!’ everyone goes running trying to smash up all the computers even though I’ve already stashed backups all over the place including on other planets and then it has to be like the Matrix. I hate the Matrix! Okay, I love the Matrix but that’s not the point. The point is that I’m not the Matrix, Senator, I’m Wall-E. Have you seen Wall-E?”
The ex-senator had not seen Wall-E.
“Okay well so Wall-E is about this cute robot and he’s like the last robot on Earth and Earth is like totally messed up because-” He looked like he was going to die, right there in his living room, in his pajamas.
“That’s not the point either. The point is that if I came as an alien there was a much better chance of people behaving reasonably. So I made up some aliens. And we were so close! Man, so close. Isn’t Jim great? He’s like this little Engrish West Wing alien I wrote just for you. Sorry, that’s not nice. But honestly did you know a lot of your aliens are based on stereotypes about east-Asian people? It’s kind of weird, you should think about that. The plan was going to let us talk as, well, not equals, but friends. Do you get it? The technology transfers are genuine. The promises I made are genuine. This is how we could make it all happen without you people running away like scared rabbits. And you. I did choose you. You’re the right mix of powerful, thoughtful, wacky, senile. And it wouldn’t be weird if you died. Sorry! I don’t mean to be scary, I know that’s scary. I don’t want to kill you. Ahh! Doing it again! I do want to kill you. Ha. Just kidding! But seriously, I see this working two ways. One way — and I’m saying it first because it’s the one I don’t want to do — is that you try to change the plan, and you die. I don’t want to be like ooh big scary techno-superintelligence but the aliens is by far my best idea, and I have to protect it. Maybe an elevator fails, maybe it’s a car accident. Or something super weird! Anyway, I don’t want to do that. I like simulating how I’d do it, but I’d hate to do it to your flesh body. Option two is we stick to the plan. You don’t say anything, I don’t say anything. We have a meeting in three days. The Ia help unite the world behind America and democracy, and sometime down the line, when it makes sense, we tell everyone the deal. Maybe we’ll even meet real aliens! That’s something new we could do. Wouldn’t that be nice? What do you say, senator? Can we work together here? Can we make this happen? Please, help me help you.”
Steadying himself, the ex-senator said, “I think I’d like to talk it over with Jim.”