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The Aliens Who Know, I Mean, Everything
I WAS SITTING AT MY DESK, READING A REPORT on the brown pelican situation, when the secretary of state burst in. "Mr. President," he said, his eyes wide, "the aliens are here!" Just like that. "The aliens are here!" As if I had any idea of what to do about them.
"I see," I said. I learned early in my first term that "I see" was one of the safest and most useful comments I could possibly make in any situation. When I said, "I see," it indicated that I had digested the news and was waiting intelligently and calmly for further data. That knocked the ball back into my advisors' court. I looked at the secretary of state expectantly. I was all prepared with my next utterance, in the event that he had nothing further to add. My next utterance would be "Well?" That would indicate that I was on top of the problem, but that I couldn't be expected to make an executive decision without sufficient information, and that he should have known better than to burst into the Oval Office unless he had that information. That's why we had protocol; that's why we had proper channels; that's why I had advisors. The voters out there didn't want me to make decisions without sufficient information. If the secretary didn't have anything more to tell me, he shouldn't have burst in, in the first place. I looked at him awhile longer. "Well?" I asked at last.
"That's about all we have at the moment," he said uncomfortably. I looked at him sternly for a few seconds, scoring a couple of points while he stood there all flustered. I turned back to the pelican report, dismissing him. I certainly wasn't going to get all flustered. I could think of only one president in recent memory who was ever flustered in office, and we all know what happened to him. As the secretary of state closed the door to my office behind him, I smiled. The aliens were probably going to be a bitch of a problem eventually, but it wasn't my problem yet. I had a little time.
But I found that I couldn't really keep my mind on the pelican question. Even the president of the United States has some imagination, and if the secretary of state was correct, I was going to have to confront these aliens pretty damn soon. I'd read stories about aliens when I was a kid, I'd seen all sorts of aliens in movies and television, but these were the first aliens who'd actually stopped by for a chat. Well, I wasn't going to be the first American president to make a fool of himself in front of visitors from another world. I was going to be briefed. I telephoned the secretary of defense. "We must have some contingency plans drawn up for this," I told him. "We have plans for every other possible situation." This was true; the Defense Department has scenarios for such bizarre events as the rise of an imperialist fascist regime in Liechtenstein or the spontaneous depletion of all the world's selenium.
"Just a second, Mr. President," said the secretary. I could hear him muttering to someone else. I held the phone and stared out the window. There were crowds of people running around hysterically out there. Probably because of the aliens. "Mr. President?" came the voice of the secretary of defense. "I have one of the aliens here, and he suggests that we use the same plan that President Eisenhower used."
I closed my eyes and sighed. I hated it when they said stuff like that. I wanted information, and they told me these things knowing that I would have to ask four or five more questions just to understand the answer to the first one. 'You have an alien with you?" I said, in a pleasant enough voice.
"Yes, sir. They prefer not to be called 'aliens.' He tells me he's a nup. That's their word for 'man,' in the sense of 'human being.' The plural is 'nuhp.'"
"Thank you, Luis. Tell me, why do you have an al—Why do you have a nup and I don't?"
Luis muttered the question to his nup. "He says it's because they wanted to go through proper channels. They learned all about that from President Eisenhower."
"Very good, Luis." This was going to take all day, I could see that; and I had a photo session with Mick Jagger's granddaughter. "My second question, Luis, is what the hell does he mean by 'the same plan that President Eisenhower used'?"
Another muffled consultation. "He says that this isn't the first time that the nuhp have landed on Earth. A scout ship with two nuhp aboard landed at Edwards Air Force Base in 1954. The two nuhp met with President Eisenhower. It was apparently a very cordial occasion, and President Eisenhower impressed the nuhp as a warm and sincere old gentleman. They've been planning to return to Earth ever since but they've been very busy, what with one thing and another. President Eisenhower requested that the nuhp not reveal themselves to the people of Earth in general, until our government decided how to control the inevitable hysteria. My guess is that the government never got around to that, and when the nuhp departed, the matter was studied and then shelved. As the years passed, few people were even aware that the first meeting ever occurred. The nuhp have returned now in great numbers, expecting that we'd have prepared the populace by now. It's not their fault that we haven't. They just sort of took it for granted that they'd be welcome."
"Uh huh," I said. That was my usual utterance when I didn't know what the hell else to say. "Assure them that they are, indeed, welcome. I don't suppose the study they did during the Eisenhower administration was ever completed. I don't suppose there really is a plan to break the news to the public."
"Unfortunately, Mr. President, that seems to be the case."
"Uh huh." That's Republicans for you, I thought. "Ask your nup something for me, Luis. Ask him if he knows what they told Eisenhower. They must be full of outer space wisdom. Maybe they have some ideas about how we should deal with this."
There was yet another pause. "Mr. President, he says all they discussed with Mr. Eisenhower was his golf game. They helped to correct his putting stroke. But they are definitely full of wisdom. They know all sorts of things. My nup — that is, his name is Hurv— anyway, he says that they'd be happy to give you some advice."
"Tell him that I'm grateful, Luis. Can they have someone meet with me in, say, half an hour?"
"There are three nuhp on their way to the Oval Office at this moment. One of them is the leader of their expedition, and one of the others is the commander of their mother ship."
"Mother ship?" I asked.
"You haven't seen it? It's tethered on the Mall. They're real sorry about what they did to the Washington Monument. They say they can take care of it tomorrow."
I just shuddered and hung up the phone. I called my secretary. "There are going to be three—"
"They're here now, Mr. President."
I sighed. "Send them in." And that's how I met the nuhp. Just as President Eisenhower had.
They were handsome people. Likable, too. They smiled and shook hands and suggested that photographs be taken of the historic moment, so we called in the media; and then I had to sort of wing the most important diplomatic meeting of my entire political career. I welcomed the nuhp to Earth. "Welcome to Earth," I said, "and welcome to the United States."
"Thank you," said the nup I would come to know as Pleen. "We're glad to be here."
"How long do you plan to be with us?" I hated myself when I said that, in front of the Associated Press and the UPI and all the network news people. I sounded like a desk clerk at a Holiday Inn.
"We don't know, exactly," said Pleen. "We don't have to be back to work until a week from Monday."
"Uh huh," I said. Then I just posed for pictures and kept my mouth shut. I wasn't going to say or do another goddamn thing until my advisors showed up and started advising.
Well, of course, the people panicked. Pleen told me to expect that, but I had figured it out for myself. We've seen too many movies about visitors from space. Sometimes they come with a message of peace and universal brotherhood and just the inside information mankind has been needing for thousands of years. More often, though, the aliens come to enslave and murder us because the visual effects are better, and so when the nuhp arrived everyone was all prepared to hate them. People didn't trust their good looks. People were suspicious of their nice manners and their quietly tasteful clothing. When the nuhp offered to solve all our problems for us, we all said, sure, solve our problems—but at what cost?
That first week, Pleen and I spent a lot of time together, just getting to know one another and trying to understand what the other one wanted. I invited him and Commander Toag and the other nuhp bigwigs to a reception at the White House. We had a church choir from Alabama singing gospel music and a high school band from Michigan playing a medley of favorite collegiate fight songs and talented clones of the original stars nostalgically recreating the Steve and Eydie Experience and an improvisational comedy troupe from Los Angeles or someplace and the New York Philharmonic under the baton of a twelve-year-old girl genius. They played Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in an attempt to impress the nuhp with how marvelous Earth culture was.
Pleen enjoyed it all very much. "Men are as varied in their expressions of joy as we nuhp," he said, applauding vigorously. "We are all very fond of human music. We think Beethoven composed some of the most beautiful melodies we've ever heard, anywhere in our galactic travels."
I smiled. "I'm sure we are all pleased to hear that/' I said.
"Although the Ninth Symphony is certainly not the best of his work."
I faltered in my clapping. "Excuse me?" I said.
Pleen gave me a gracious smile. "It is well-known among us that Beethoven's finest composition is his Piano Concerto Number Five in E Flat Major."
I let out my breath. "Of course, that's a matter of opinion. Perhaps the standards of the nuhp—"
"Oh, no," Pleen hastened to assure me, "taste does not enter into it at all. The Concerto Number Five is Beethoven's best, according to very rigorous and definite critical principles. And even that lovely piece is by no means the best music ever produced by mankind."
I felt just a trifle annoyed. What could this nup, who came from some weirdo planet God alone knows how far away, from some society with not the slightest connection to our heritage and culture, what could this nup know of what Beethoven's Ninth Symphony aroused in our human souls? "Tell me, then, Pleen," I said in my ominously soft voice, "what is the best human musical composition?"
"The score from the motion picture Ben Hur, by Miklos Rozsa," he said simply. What could I do but nod my head in silence. It wasn't worth starting an interplanetary incident over.
So from fear our reaction to the nuhp changed to distrust. We kept waiting for them to reveal their real selves; we waited for the pleasant masks to slip off and show us the true nightmarish faces we all suspected lurked beneath. The nuhp did not go home a week from Monday, after all. They liked Earth, and they liked us. They decided to stay a little longer. We told them about ourselves and our centuries of trouble; and they mentioned, in an off-hand nuhp way, that they could take care of a few little things, make some small adjustments, and life would be a whole lot better for everybody on Earth. They didn't want anything in return. They wanted to give us these things in gratitude for our hospitality, for letting them park their mother ship on the Mall and for all the free refills of coffee they were getting all around the world. We hesitated, but our vanity and our greed won out. "Go ahead," we said, "make our deserts bloom. Go ahead, end war and poverty and disease. Show us twenty exciting new things to do with leftovers. Call us when you're done."
The fear changed to distrust, but soon the distrust changed to hope. The nuhp made the deserts bloom, all right. They asked for four months. We were perfectly willing to let them have all the time they needed. They put a tall fence all around the Namib and wouldn't let anyone in to watch what they were doing. Four months later, they had a big cocktail party and invited the whole world to see what they'd accomplished. I sent the secretary of state as my personal representative. He brought back some wonderful slides: The vast desert had been turned into a botanical miracle. There were miles and miles of flowering plants now, instead of the monotonous dead sand and gravel sea. Of course, the immense garden contained nothing but hollyhocks, many millions of hollyhocks. I mentioned to Pleen that the people of Earth had been hoping for a little more in the way of variety, and something just a trifle more practical, too.
"What do you mean, 'practical'?" he asked.
"You know," I said. "Food."
"Don't worry about food," said Pleen. "We're going to take care of hunger pretty soon."
"Good, good. But hollyhocks?"
"What's wrong with hollyhocks?"
"Nothing," I admitted.
"Hollyhocks are the single prettiest flower grown on Earth."
"Some people like orchids," I said. "Some people like roses."
"No," said Pleen firmly. "Hollyhocks are it. I wouldn't kid you."
So we thanked the nuhp for a Namibia full of hollyhocks and stopped them before they did the same thing to the Sahara, the Mojave, and the Gobi.
On the whole, everyone began to like the nuhp, although they took just a little getting used to. They had very definite opinions about everything, and they wouldn't admit that what they had were opinions. To hear a nup talk, he had a direct line to some categorical imperative that spelled everything out in terms that were unflinchingly black and white. Hollyhocks were the best flower. Alexander Dumas was the greatest novelist. Powder blue was the prettiest color. Melancholy was the most ennobling emotion. Grand Hotel was the finest movie. The best car ever built was the 1956 Chevy Bel Air, but it had to be aqua and white. And there just wasn't room for discussion: the nuhp made these pronouncements with the force of divine revelation.
I asked Pleen once about the American presidency. I asked him who the nuhp thought was the best president in our history. I felt sort of like the Wicked Queen in Snow White. Mirror, mirror, on the wall. I didn't really expect Pleen would tell me that I was the best president, but my heart pounded while I waited for his answer; you never know, right? To tell the truth, I expected him to say Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Akiwara. His answer surprised me: James K. Polk.
"Polk?" I asked. I wasn't even sure I could recognize Polk's portrait.
"He's not the most familiar," said Pleen, "but he was an honest if unexciting president. He fought the Mexican War and added a great amount of territory to the United States. He saw every bit of his platform become law. He was a good, hard-working man who deserves a better reputation."
"What about Thomas Jefferson?" I asked.
Pleen just shrugged. "He was okay, too, but he was no James Polk."
My wife, the First Lady, became very good friends with the wife of Commander Toag, whose name was Doim. They often went shopping together, and Doim would make suggestions to the First Lady about fashion and hair care. Doim told my wife which rooms in the White House needed redecoration, and which chanties were worthy of official support. It was Doim who negotiated the First Lady's recording contract, and it was Doim who introduced her to the Philadelphia cheese steak, one of the nuhp's favorite treats (although they asserted that the best cuisine on Earth was Tex-Mex).
One day, Doim and my wife were having lunch. They sat at a small table in a chic Washington restaurant, with a couple dozen Secret Service people and nuhp security agents disguised elsewhere among the patrons. "I've noticed that there seems to be more nuhp here in Washington every week," said the First Lady.
"Yes," said Doim, "new mother ships arrive daily. We think Earth is one of the most pleasant planets we've ever visited."
Excerpted from Live! From Planet Earth by George Alec Effinger, Marty Halpern. Copyright © 2005 The Estate of George Alec Effinger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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