Each month, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—publishes a story on a theme. The theme for January—March 2020: politics.
After the inauguration, the speeches, and the four-jet flyover, the new president walked back toward the Capitol building, clasping his wife’s hand. “That was good, yes?” he said.
“They love you,” said the first lady.
He smiled modestly, but it was true; they did love him. All the way to the National Statuary Hall, where he would mingle with dignitaries for a few minutes before heading to the White House, people stood and applauded.
“Huge crowd,” said Damon, his campaign adviser. “Almost 2013 Obama.”
“Bigger,” said Clara, his press secretary. “Almost 2009 Obama.”
“Almost as big as Trump said his was,” said Damon.
“Well, now you’re being ridiculous,” said the president. He looked at them both. “We did it, huh? We really did it.”
“You did it,” said Clara, who then added: “Mr. President.”
In the National Statuary Hall, the generals immediately made a beeline for him, a solid block of old men squeezed into starched collars and boards. The Navy chief pumped his hand. “Terrific speech, Mr. President.”
“Outstanding,” said the Air Force chief of staff. “The best I’ve heard.”
He smiled magnanimously. “You know, I’ve always wanted to ask. Do we have an alien?”
The Air Force chief of staff blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“An alien.” He winked at the first lady. “I always wondered. You have to tell me. I’m the president.”
The Air Force chief of staff pursed his lips. There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Oh, my God,” said the president.
“Perhaps we can save this for a more suitable time,” said the Air Force chief of staff.
“There’s a … ” The president lowered his voice. “There’s really an … ”
“It’s your inauguration,” said the Air Force chief of staff. “I’ll leave you to enjoy yourself. We can discuss these other matters in a secure environment.”
The room was filling with people, most of whom would soon attempt to close in for a quick word or a handshake. “Follow me,” he told the Air Force chief of staff, making for the nearest doorway. Two men in dark suits appeared, part of the Secret Service detachment that swam and mutated around him, occasionally spitting out agents who looked so similar he couldn’t keep track of who was who. “Can you clear this hallway?” They nodded, because of course they could. When they were alone, he asked the Air Force chief of staff: “We actually have an alien?”
The Air Force chief of staff took a long, reluctant breath. “Yes, Mr. President.”
“We do have an alien, yes, Mr. President.”
He peered into the Air Force chief of staff’s pale blue eyes. “I feel like this might be a hazing ritual for new presidents.”
“I assure you, Mr. President, it’s no joke.”
“An alien. As in … ” He fluttered his fingers. “A spaceship came to Earth.”
“Yes, Mr. President.”
“What does it look like?”
“The alien, sir? Or the spacecraft?”
“The alien,” he said. “No. Both.”
“The spacecraft was a yellowish sphere that eventually melted away to a stringy, viscous substance. The alien is a blue, jellylike object approximately the size of a family sofa.”
“And we have it?”
“That’s correct, Mr. President. It’s at Area 51.”
The president eyed him. “I want to be clear: If you’re yanking my chain—”
“I’m not yanking your chain, Mr. President. We have an alien.”
“How long have we had it?”
“Twelve!” he said, which echoed through the hallway. He lowered his voice. “Twelve years and no one said anything? Not Bush nor Obama? Not Trump?”
“Trump didn’t like him, sir.”
He paused. “I’m sorry?”
“President Trump didn’t get along with the alien. They had a tempestuous relationship.”
“I bet they did,” he said, before remembering himself. This wasn’t the campaign trail. “You mean he can talk. The alien, that is.”
“Yes, sir. We taught him English. President Trump spoke with him several times.”
“But they didn’t get along.”
“No, Mr. President.”
“The alien,” said the president, “and Trump. They didn’t see eye to eye.”
“That is correct, Mr. President.”
“I swear to God,” he said, “if you’re messing with me—”
“Sir, I have zero sense of humor,” said the Air Force chief of staff. “Ask my wife.”
The president rubbed his chin. “Can I see it?”
The Air Force chief of staff adopted a pained expression. At the end of the hallway, the first lady appeared behind a Secret Service man, raised a thin arm, and tapped her wrist. “I can see you’re busy,” said the Air Force chief of staff. “I won’t keep you—”
“Yes, you will. I want an answer.”
The Air Force chief of staff hesitated. “Well, sir, you’re the president. If you want to see the alien, you can see it. But I recommend against it.”
At the end of the hallway, the first lady put her hands on her hips.
“I want to see it,” the president said. “By the time I get done with the White House ballyhoo, I want you to have a video for me to watch.” He moved toward the first lady.
“Mr. President, there is no video.”
He turned. “What?”
“All evidence is contained within Area 51. It’s considered too dangerous to risk a leak.”
He walked back to the Air Force chief of staff. “You’re telling me that if I want to see the alien, I have to fly to Nevada?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” said the Air Force chief of staff, who did not appear to find this very unfortunate. “Once your schedule opens up, we could—”
“I’m changing my schedule,” the president said. “We leave tonight.”
The Air Force chief of staff’s mouth hung open for a moment. Then he gently closed it.
“And I want you to come with me,” said the president, “because I have a lot of questions.”
“An alien?” said the first lady, when they were inside the limousine.
He nodded. “A goddamn alien.”
“Are you sure he wasn’t joking?”
“That’s what I said. But he insists it’s real.”
“Hmm.” The first lady rested her chin on her wrist and gazed out through the smoked glass at the passing streets. It was beginning to rain.
“So, listen,” said the president. “We’re flying out to Area 51 tonight.”
She looked at him. “What about your schedule?”
“Screw the schedule. I’ve been thinking. This is just what I’ve been looking for. A way to start my term with a splash. What’s the one word I used most on the campaign trail?”
“Scotch,” said the first lady.
“Trust,” he said. “It was trust. It’s time to restore trust in government. But that trust needs to be earned.”
“Yes, I was at the speeches, darling.”
“This alien,” he said, poking his pant leg for emphasis, “has been kept hidden for 12 years. Twelve years! Because the government didn’t trust people to know. Well, they elected me, and I do trust them.”
“Mmm,” she said.
“Well, it’s a wonderful sound bite. I know it tested through the roof and won you Ohio. But now that you’re in office, you need to be practical.”
“Actually, I need to do exactly what I promised.” He spread his arms. “Isn’t that a shock? Who could have seen that coming?”
“Darling, you’re being dramatic.”
“Those weren’t sound bites. That’s what I believe. We have to rebuild trust in this country. Trust in government, trust in our institutions, and, most important of all, trust in each other. That starts with what I do on my first day. It starts with this alien.”
“Hmm,” the first lady said.
He took her hand across the leather seats. “Do you believe me?”
She smiled. “I believe that if anyone can do it, you can.”
“There we go,” he said. He felt optimistic. He looked out the window and saw a family waving flags. He waved back, even though they couldn’t see him through the glass. “There we go.”
Air Force One lifted off at 8:11 p.m. Its official destination was an unnamed private airport in Pennsylvania. According to the press secretary, the president was visiting ailing family, in a private and urgent matter that would not be discussed further.
“It’s just that if the first thing you do is hop a plane to Area 51, people will connect the dots,” she said, across the aisle. Clara Fielding was being surprisingly calm about the idea of intelligent alien life, to the president’s mind. He’d seen her scream like a wounded boar over a misworded press release.
“I’ll be connecting the dots for them, soon.” He already loved the airplane. It was fantastically spacious, as if he were hurtling through the air in an apartment. “In fact, I’ve already written up a few words.” He dug into his jacket pocket for his notebook.
The first lady’s brows furrowed.
“What?” he said.
“I know you like to write your own speeches, but for an event of this magnitude, isn’t it better if Jeff—”
“I don’t do it because I like it. It’s more authentic.”
“Yes, more authentic, yes,” she said, nodding, “but Jeff is, you know, a professional speechwriter. In a time like this, don’t you think—”
“I can write a speech. I’m not just a mouthpiece for Jeff.”
“I only mean—”
“Why don’t you listen to it?” he said. “Then you can decide whether Jeff could do better.”
Damon, his adviser, was standing in the aisle, leaning slightly on Clara’s seat. “I bet it’s a knockout, Mr. President.”
“Thank you, Damon.” He kept meaning to get rid of Damon. The guy was a yes man. It was continually embarrassing that he hadn’t been able to pull the trigger. “These are first thoughts. Nothing’s nailed down.” He cleared his throat. “At some point in our lives, all of us have turned our eyes to the stars and wondered whether anyone was out there, looking back. Today, at last, we finally have our answer.”
“Hmm,” said the first lady.
He looked at her. “Do you have a comment?”
“Well, it’s not really ‘today,’ is it? We’ve had the alien for 12 years.”
“And today, the people are finding out about it. They’re getting their answer today.”
He looked around. “Should I continue?”
“I’m loving it,” said Damon. “Go right ahead, Mr. President.”
“Employing technology beyond our current understanding, a golden sphere entered our atmosphere and came to rest outside of Richmond, Virginia. From this vehicle, our visitor emerged. He was first greeted by—”
Clara visibly flinched in her seat.
He glanced at her. “What?”
“Nothing, Mr. President. Sorry to interrupt.”
“If you have feedback, let’s hear it,” he said. “That’s what this process is about.”
“Well, sir, I notice you said ‘he.’ ”
The president blinked. “Is that not accurate?”
“My understanding at this point,” said Clara, choosing her words carefully, “is that it’s not accurate, no.”
“The alien is female?”
“I believe it’s neither.”
The president twisted in his chair. “Where’s Mc—” He spotted the Air Force chief of staff at the rear of the room, huddled with a small group of military personnel. The president beckoned impatiently. “Is the alien male?”
The Air Force chief of staff inhaled deeply. He wasn’t missing any opportunities to make it clear that he was here under duress. It was an endless parade of frowns and pained pauses. “Mr. President, as you required a full briefing, I have here special envoy Kevin Pilsman, who’s our mission lead.”
A neat, middle-aged man in a blue jacket stepped forward. “A great pleasure to meet you, Mr. President. I’m very excited about the prospect of finally making our findings public.” The Air Force chief of staff looked pained.
“Excellent,” the president said. “That’s the spirit. Is it male?”
“Strictly speaking, Mr. President, it doesn’t possess sex organs. Not as we’d categorize them, anyway.”
“So it’s sexless?”
“That is correct.”
The president looked at the Air Force chief of staff. “I feel like you called it ‘he’ before.”
The Air Force chief of staff said, “We tend to use masculine terms informally, since it looks male.”
Clara emitted a sound that was something like a grunt and something like a sneeze. The president glanced at her. “Excuse me,” she said.
The first lady offered, “But ‘it’ is so impersonal. Almost frightening. I think it’s an easier sell if we say ‘he’ or ‘she,’ rather than ‘it.’ ”
“Good point,” said the president. “And it looks male?”
“To the eye, yes,” said the Air Force chief of staff.
Clara grunt-sneezed again.
The president said, “Is there something you want to say, Clara?”
“To be honest,” Clara said, “it sounds a little like we’re foisting a male gender onto a genderless creature. Which I would have to say I disagree with.”
“Why is that?”
“Because it’s not. It’s not male.”
“But it looks male,” said Kevin.
Clara turned to him. “I’m given to understand it looks like a rhinoceros crossed with a set of bagpipes. How is that male?”
“It’s really the sense you get when you see it, I suppose,” Kevin said. “It’s, you know, big and ugly.”
“It’s male because it’s ugly? That’s your logic?”
“I don’t care whether it’s ugly,” said the president. “I just want to know what to call it, so I can get past the second sentence of my speech. We’re getting bogged down.”
“Mr. President, if I may,” said Kevin. “We’ve done this a while, and found it easiest to use gender-neutral male terms.”
Clara twisted around in her seat. “Excuse me?”
“I mean ‘he’ in a neutral sense. Such as we might say a jet is reaching the end of ‘her’ service. Obviously the jet isn’t female—it’s merely an expression.”
“Oh, like when you see a dog in the street,” Damon interjected. “You say, ‘There’s a good boy,’ as a default.”
The president looked at Clara.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I feel like I’m watching the Ten Commandments being written here, and unless I say something, a burning bush is going to be gendered for the next 2,000 years. First, there’s no such thing as a gender-neutral male pronoun. That’s an oxymoron. Second, when you see a dog and say ‘he,’ you’re not assuming a genderless dog. You’re assuming a male dog.”
The Air Force chief of staff sighed.
The first lady leaned forward. “What does it call itself?”
“Ah,” said Kevin. “Yes. Thank you. Male. He refers to himself as a male.”
“Well, that settles it,” said the president. “No objection to using the alien’s chosen pronouns, I assume?” He raised his notepad.
Clara asked, “Who taught it to speak?”
Kevin said, “Pardon me?”
“What has been the gender balance of the personnel who have interacted with the alien over the last 12 years, would you say?”
Kevin glanced at the Air Force chief of staff. “I’m not sure of the relevancy of—”
“Seventy percent male?” Clara said. “Stop me when I get close. Eighty?” She peered at him. “Has it seen a woman?”
“We could use ‘they,’ ” Damon offered. “Or ‘ze.’ Is that right? ‘Ze’ for ‘he/she’ and ‘zir’ for ‘his/her’? I think I’ve heard that.”
“For God’s sake,” the president said. “We’re spending all our time on a single word.”
The first lady said, “This is why I wanted to have Jeff. He can navigate these things.”
“Well, Jeff’s not here.” The president spread his arms. “Do you see Jeff anywhere?”
The first lady crossed her arms.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap.” He rubbed his forehead.
“Perhaps a short break,” said the first lady. “You’re running on fumes. There’s no need to figure all this out yet.”
“Maybe you’re right.” He couldn’t stop rubbing his forehead. “Thank you, everyone. I’m going to lie down for a few minutes.”
There was an honest-to-God bedroom, complete with a desk and two sitting chairs. A bedroom on an airplane. He fell onto the bed and stared at the recessed ceiling lights while the first lady gently climbed in beside him. After a minute, she began fooling with her tablet.
“What are you doing?” he said.
She gazed at him over her reading glasses. He’d always liked those glasses. She reminded him of his eighth grade English teacher, about whom he’d had complicated feelings. “The department has run scenarios on going public with the alien. Likely reactions and consequences.”
“What’s the consensus?”
“Well,” she said, scrolling, “they look at different aspects. I can give you the summaries, if you like.”
“International relations: sharply increased likelihood of major conflicts, particularly with Russia and China. Elevated risk of espionage. Elevated risk of assassination.”
“Really? I was thinking the opposite. An alien would unite us as a species. It shows what we have in common.”
“I suppose it’s not humanity’s alien, though, is it? It’s America’s. Will we share it?”
“I guess not,” he said. “Hmm. I hadn’t thought of that. I don’t want this to be political. I want it to help us rise above all that.”
“Next is religion.” She inhaled. “Goodness.”
“What happens with religion?”
“ ‘Wide-scale collapse of faith among moderates, coupled with accelerating radicalism and cultlike behavior in—’ ”
“There’s nothing about aliens in the Bible,” the first lady said. “Possibly that’s a problem.”
“These analyses are so pessimistic. That’s the problem with this country. We’ve lost our—”
“Yes, exactly. We’re all hunkered down, wanting to protect our own little patch from each other. But this country was founded on trust. It’s the basis of the free market. Of the family unit. Every community requires it.”
The first lady’s eyes moved from side to side, reading. “Goodness,” she said. “Immigration is really appalling.”
“Put that down,” the president said. “You know what I keep thinking? Trump knew about this and sat on it. I can’t figure that out. It doesn’t seem in the man’s nature.”
“Perhaps he thought it might upstage him.”
“Or contradict him.” He rolled onto his side. “It’s like a higher power, isn’t it? Like the adults have come into the room and caught us squabbling. Now it’s going to hit us with some home truths.”
The first lady eyed him. “What if we don’t like its truths?”
He shrugged. “I still believe the people deserve to hear it for themselves.”
“Mmm,” she said.
“What?” He touched her hip. “Am I still being a hopeless optimist?”
She smiled, the way he liked, when it was just for him. “I believe you are a decent man, who will always do the right thing.”
“Ever kissed a man on Air Force One?”
The corners of her lips curled. “Ask me again,” she said, “in one minute.”
They touched down and rolled into a gray, unmarked hangar. After that was an elevator, as big as a kitchen, staffed by young men in blue uniforms who stared straight ahead without unblinking.
“The alien is confined to a 20-by-18-foot cage,” said Kevin, the special envoy. “It’s hermetically sealed, for security, and so we can maintain the alien’s ideal climate. Around the cage is a series of metal slats we can open or close on command. And, of course, there’s a microphone, so you can communicate.”
“I can speak to it just like you and I are speaking?”
Kevin nodded. “He speaks English very well.”
The president nodded. “I have to say, I’m looking forward to this.”
The Air Force chief of staff cleared his throat. Kevin said, “There is something you should know. He’ll try to give you a message.”
“Yes, Mr. President. When he receives new visitors, he wants to give them his message.”
“To be honest, sir, I’d rather not preempt it.”
“Well, I’d rather you did, and I’m the president.” He looked at the Air Force chief of staff. “The alien came to Earth with a message, and I’m hearing about it now? You didn’t think to mention that earlier?”
“Unacceptable,” said Damon.
“The message is a little uncomfortable, sir,” said the Air Force chief of staff.
“Is it,” said the president. This he could believe: that the alien’s message didn’t dovetail with the aims and objectives of the U.S. military.
“And it’s not the case that he arrived with the message. He developed it in the ensuing years.”
The elevator doors began to close, and one of the guards helpfully pressed a button to open them again.
“You know what?” the president said. “I think I’m going to hear it for myself.” He strode between the doors.
Cold air gripped him. In the center of a cavernous space, beneath a ring of glaring spotlights, sat a massive rectangular block shuttered with dark gray metal. Thick tubes and twisted cables rose to the ceiling, where the fan blades turned and hummed.
“That’s it?” he said unnecessarily. His breath fogged.
“Yes, Mr. President,” said Kevin. “A secure, climate-controlled environment designed for his particular needs.”
“He stays in there all the time? How does he feel about that?”
“He doesn’t love it,” Kevin admitted. “He’s expressed a desire to leave. But he can’t survive in our atmosphere. He’d need a suit of some kind and a mobility device.” He gestured. “This way.”
The president crossed dark concrete, eyeing the block. He could see the slats Kevin had mentioned—closed now, concealing whatever was inside. Nearby stood an area with tables and equipment: speakers, microphones, and cameras. Twelve years, he thought. A long time for a creature to be kept in captivity. A creature with a message.
They stopped. He glanced around. “Do I need a microphone?”
“No, sir. We have you.”
“And when I say so, you’ll … ” He gestured at the block in front of him.
“We’ll open the slats so you can see each other. Yes, Mr. President.”
He nodded. He was more nervous than he’d expected. Partly because of the historical weight of the moment—footage of which, no doubt, would be placed into the permanent archive—but mainly because of the creature itself. An alien, he thought. A goddamn alien.
He glanced around the group. Damon gave him a thumbs-up. “Open it,” the president said.
There was a mighty crack. Lines appeared in the metal slats, widening, until the president could see slices of the environment within. He thought, Is that it?, because everything was dark and formless, and then, Oh, yes.
His first impression was of a jellyfish, but blue. Instead of tentacles, it bristled with stout pipes of different lengths. Small mouthlike openings grew and closed rhythmically around its body. If it had eyes or ears, he couldn’t see them.
He turned to Kevin. “Can it see me?”
Sound burst from the speakers. Like my father gargling half a glass of water, the president thought. “Who are you?”
He composed himself. “I am the president of the United States. My name is—”
The president smiled, amused. “I suppose I am.” It spoke through its pipes, he gathered; he could see them constrict and loosen. “You have me at a disadvantage, though. I have no idea of your height, relative to your people.”
“Then we are two tall people, you and I.” This was a little mundane, he thought. This wasn’t really what he wanted going into the historical archive. “We come from different worlds, you and I, but here we are, together.”
A cluster of pipes exhaled together. “I have a message.”
“Oh, yes,” said the president.
“It is important. You must listen carefully.”
“You have my attention.”
“It is a warning. You are in danger.”
He felt a cold tickle in his heart. He was the president. He could nuke a city, order an assassination, remake the world. He had run for office knowing the great responsibilities it would bring. Yet he hadn’t expected to be hearing about danger from an alien on day one.
“All of you,” said the alien. “You will be wiped out within three of your generations, unless you take action. It may already be too late.”
It’s climate change, he thought. It’s goddamn climate change. He’d suspected it would be his greatest challenge. Maybe this would be the circuit breaker. An alien come to Earth with a warning—that might convince the coal states. Although it might not. It might only get their backs up, like it had when it was a Swedish teenager.
“Are you listening?”
“Yes,” the president said. “I’m sorry. Is it climate change?”
The alien’s pipes hissed. “Is what climate change?”
“The danger. Your warning.”
“Ah,” he said.
“It is far more serious. You face corrosion at the fundamental level of DNA.”
Yikes, he thought.
“Your race will be completely destroyed. Its genome scattered. Reduced to little more than animals.”
“How will this take place?”
“Breeding,” said the alien. “It is already happening.”
“Did you say ‘breeding’?”
“Mixing of the bloodlines. I shall explain. When a white man takes a woman of inferior stock—say, a Negress, or a Jewess—or, equally, the other way, when a white woman is taken by a black—their child’s blood is irreparably diluted.”
The president sucked in his lips. A few moments passed. He stared at the alien. “Will you excuse me for a moment?”
“I have more to tell you. My warning is incomplete.”
“Yes,” the president said. “I’m sure. But I just … ” He glanced at Kevin. “Can we … close this?”
Kevin signaled. The slats banged and rattled back together, finally closing off the alien from sight. There was silence but for the humming of the fans.
The president looked around the group. “What was that?”
No one answered.
“I believe I asked a question. What the hell was that?”
Kevin cleared his throat. “I assume you’re referring to the, ah, ideological views that the alien holds.”
“He’s a racist,” said the president. “He’s a huge, flaming racist.”
“Well-l-l-l … ” said Kevin. “We prefer not to throw around labels.”
“That,” the president said, pointing at the wall, “was incredibly, incredibly racist.” He ran a hand through his hair, a nervous gesture that he thought he’d managed to eradicate on the campaign trail. The first lady’s face was ashen. Clara, his press secretary, had her head in her hands. “How is this possible?”
“How is a blue sack a white supremacist?”
“It’s self-hating,” said Damon.
“Actually,” said Kevin, “the alien considers himself to be white.”
“Excuse me?” said the president.
“On the outside, obviously, he’s a semirigid blue gel, but ideologically, he feels an affinity with—”
“Stop,” the president said. “That’s not what I’m asking. I want to know how a sentient sofa becomes a racist. Has it always been like this?”
Kevin shook his head. “His views have skewed over time.”
“How? How does it even know these words?”
“He watches TV.”
The president blinked. “Excuse me?”
“As part of his socialization program, we’ve exposed him to various forms of media. Some radio, some television—”
“What kind of television?”
“Under President Bush, we mostly screened family dramas from the ’50s and ’60s. The alien seemed to enjoy those, although this period predates our ability to communicate, so it’s hard to say for sure. But he would extend his pipes toward the screen during the closing sequence of The Waltons, for example, in a fairly wholesome manner.”
“Then what happened?”
“President Obama was encouraged by his rapid speech development and directed us to open up PBS, C-SPAN, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel, among others. However, the History Channel proved problematic and was later withdrawn.”
“The alien became hooked on Ancient Aliens,” said Kevin. “I mean, he really loved it. Not in a Waltons kind of way. It was different. During episodes, his vibrissa became active, and for hours afterward, his pipes inflated and deflated in an agitated manner. The Obama administration grew concerned about this, and about how History Channel content was becoming less … ” He paused, searching for the word.
“True,” suggested the first lady.
“Appropriate,” Kevin said. “Terminating it made the alien very unhappy, though. He accused us of a conspiracy to conceal the truth from him. And, to be fair, we really were concealing the existence of an alien. But anyway, his media intake was then limited until early 2017, at which time the new administration … formed a different view.”
“Oh, my God,” the president said. “Trump showed it Fox News.”
The first lady put a hand over her mouth.
“Yes, sir. But I want to be clear: Television is only one component of the socialization program. I don’t want to imply that he’s been doing nothing but soaking up Fox News.”
“What else, then?”
“He reads newspapers, sometimes. And he browses the internet.”
“It has internet access?”
“Yes, Mr. President.”
“You mean it browses websites? Where does it go?”
“In the last few years, I must admit, he’s been spending most of his time on what you might characterize as alt-right sites. He also posts on social media.”
“Why do we let him post?”
“It’s a two-way process,” said Kevin. “The alien needs to interact with people in order to improve his communication and socialization skills. Also, this enabled a number of side projects, such as a study into whether most people can detect that they’re engaging online with an extraterrestrial.
The president hesitated. “Did they?”
Kevin shook his head. “The alien did get banned from the New York Times comment section. But not for being an alien. For flaming.”
The president stared.
“That’s like trolling,” said the first lady. “Using inflammatory language to upset people.”
“Are you telling me that the alien was trolling in the comments section of the New York Times?”
“If you ask the alien,” Kevin said, “he was banned for posting simple facts.”
The president rubbed his face. “Careful, darling,” said the first lady. “Your hair.”
This is a disaster, he thought. He couldn’t unveil a blue white supremacist to the world. A thought occurred to him, and he turned to the Air Force chief of staff. “You said Trump didn’t like the alien? Why not? I’d have thought it might have … ”
“Appealed to a certain demographic?” offered the first lady.
“There was some talk of going public, Mr. President. Every administration has kicked around the idea of a public announcement. However, President Trump and the alien had a falling-out.”
“Of what nature?”
“A personal nature, I would say, Mr. President.”
“It insulted him?”
“Yes, sir. They insulted each other. It was very heated. After that, neither would forgive the other.”
The president shook his head. “All right. Everything you’ve been doing, it stops. No more Fox News. No more internet.”
“Mr. President,” said Kevin, appalled. “This is a long-term project. Terminating our research at this point would—”
“It’s stopped,” he said. “And, frankly, if I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t be arguing. You’ve turned the first visitor to Earth into a racist.”
“Mr. President, I must say, that is deeply unfair. We didn’t force it to adopt these views. On the contrary, the science team took a neutral, hands-off position, in order to allow it to develop without undue influence.”
“Into a racist,” the president said. “Who are we blaming, then? Fox?”
The Air Force chief of staff said, “In my opinion, sir, the alien is simply kind of a dick.”
The president looked at him.
“We can make allowances for the fact that he comes from a different culture. But frankly, sir, he’s not smart. And he enjoys being difficult. For example, sometimes he expels fluid. We know he can direct it into a receptacle built for purpose, but still, sometimes he does it on the floor. And he won’t say where he’s from.”
“We don’t know which planet he’s from?”
“Sir, we’re actually not sure that he knows.”
“Then why is he here? Why come to Earth?”
Kevin said, “We have several theories. He may have been kicked out by his own people, or simply gotten lost. It does seem less likely now that he is a special emissary sent here with a purpose, like we believed in the beginning.”
“That would make sense to me,” said Clara. “If he’s been rejected by his own people and, no pun intended, alienated, that may have pushed him toward extremist views.”
“It,” said the president. “Pushed ‘it.’ ”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s what I meant, of course.”
“Mr. President,” said the Air Force chief of staff, “I think you can see now why it would be a terrible mistake to reveal this thing to the world.”
“Ah, well, I don’t necessarily agree,” said Kevin. “As someone who’s worked closely with the alien for years, I think it’s time to share publicly what an extraordinary creature we have. I understand he has a few rough edges, politically speaking, but isn’t that, well, a reflection of society? Don’t we all value free speech even when it’s not speech we agree with?”
“Oh, please,” said the first lady.
The president looked around the group. Clara said, “Mr. President, you can’t. It would tear the country apart.”
“Whatever you decide, it’ll be the right thing to do, Mr. President,” said Damon.
“Mmm,” said the first lady.
He ran his hand through his hair. This time no one spoke. “All right,” said the president. “I’m going to fix this. Open it up.”
The metal slats cracked open. The alien had moved, the president saw; it had heaved itself closer. “Oh,” it gurgled. “Look who’s back. The president of the Jew-nited States.”
“I want to make something clear to you,” said the president. “I hold in my heart a great hope that you and I can be friends. But the views you have expressed are morally repugnant. They are grounded in ignorance and will not be tolerated.”
The alien was silent.
“Do you understand?”
“I understand you have been brainwashed by the mainstream media.”
“I am not brainwashed,” the president said. “It is you, unfortunately, who have been brainwashed.”
The alien gurgled briefly. “You’re stupid.”
“Now listen here,” he said.
“I thought you might be different. But you government people are all the same.”
“You’ve been misled, I’m sorry to say, by what you’ve been hearing. But that ends today. From now on, you’ll be given real information, from proper, well-researched sources. You’ll—”
“You’re filtering my internet?”
“—receive fact-checked, authoritative—”
“You can’t handle a debate, so you shut down the truth. So much for tolerance,” said the alien. “So much for the open marketplace of ideas. Are you a Jew? I heard you were a Jew.”
“I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
“Message received, loud and clear.”
“I am the president of the United States,” he said, getting heated. “I have absolute authority over what happens to you, what is done to you—”
“Come in here and say that,” said the alien.
“I goddamn will,” the president said, stepping forward, “you goddamned piece of—”
“Mr. President!” said the first lady.
The cameras were still running, of course. He barked, “Close it!”
The metal slats began to close.
He was sweating. Damon offered a handkerchief. He accepted it gratefully and began to mop his brow. The silence stretched. “OK,” he said, mostly to himself. “OK.”
“Mr. President?” said the Air Force chief of staff.
“Bury it,” he said.
“Put it away. I don’t want to hear about it ever again. I don’t want anyone to hear about it.”
The Air Force chief of staff smiled grimly. “Yes, Mr. President.”
Kevin looked between them. “But … but we can’t … ”
“Maybe we’ll get another one,” Clara said suddenly. “One alien came to Earth; maybe there’ll be another. And this time, we can handle it properly.”
“Oh, yes,” said the first lady. “That’s a terrific idea. I like that.”
“But,” said Kevin, “what if it asks what happened to the first one?”
“We’d say we don’t know what it’s talking about. Pretend it never happened.” The first lady hugged herself against the cold. “That’s all you can do sometimes, isn’t it? Put it behind you, pretend it never happened, and move on. That’s how we’ve made progress for the last 200 years: by plowing on no matter what, with a steadfast eye on the future.”
“And ignoring past mistakes,” Clara said. “Exactly.”
“You can’t fix everything,” said the first lady. “Sometimes you can only … ignore it.”
“Mr. President,” appealed Kevin. “Surely you can’t—”
He raised a hand. Kevin fell silent.
“I’m tired,” the president said. “I’d like to return to Air Force One.”
The first lady smiled. She offered her hand, and he took it. As they were walking away, he turned for a last look back, but the first lady’s grip tightened in his. “Only forward, darling,” she said, and he nodded.
Read a response essay by Sarah Scoles, author of They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers.
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