“So you say you’re an alien. As in, from another world?”
No fan of TV crime shows would have taken Faber for a G-man. After putting his question, the balding field agent leaned back so his belt wouldn’t pinch his paunch. A gray necktie matched what remained of his hair. His white shirt had not been pressed since leaving the factory.
“That is so,” replied a pleasant baritone in unaccented English. Dark irises set in a light brown face gazed back at him above a slight smile.
The relaxed man across the table from Faber looked to be in his forties. Jeans, white sweater, unassuming, like a typical tourist in DC. Except that he had shown up on too many surveillance cameras. Hence this interview.
Faber glanced at the thin file in front of him. “What is your name?”
“My name is inaudible to human ears, much less pronounceable by the human mouth, but you may call me Allen.”
“It sounds less derogatory than ‘alien,’ does it not?” Brown hands rested motionless and flat on the table’s polished surface.
Faber had known plenty of crazies. This man did not seem like one. Calm of voice and manner, he shaped his words precisely.
Nor did he seem a likely threat. No training unless he masked it well. True, he was hard to read, but he sat with his back to the door. He did not walk with one hand hovering near his body, nor did he glide with the flat gait of a skilled fighter. No calluses on the edges or knuckles of his hands. His eyes did not monitor Fabers’ hands, even peripherally. The control in his voice sounded natural, untutored. He was here because of the amateurish mistake of appearing on too many security monitors.
“Where are you from, Allen?”
“A long, long way from here.”
“So I gathered. Will you excuse me for a moment?”
In an adjacent room, Faber inspected the readouts of the lie detection sensors built into the interview room tabletop and furniture. The readings were all within the norms expected of someone believing what he said. Beating a lie detector was possible, but Faber knew the signs, and he saw none. He shook his head and returned to continue the questioning.
“So why are you here, Allen?”
“I am one of many Watchers sent to view the last days of human life on this planet.” The words chilled Faber despite his disbelief in them. Some crazies were convincing.
“How did you arrive? In some sort of spaceship?”
“Heavens, no. Why go about the galaxy in clunky hardware? We used what you might call a self-assembling printer. It printed this body for my consciousness to inhabit while I’m here.”
“I see. How do you return home, then?”
“A mental signal dissolves the body while my consciousness is transferred elsewhere.”
“Ah. So, do you have any….evidence for these claims?”
“I do not. We didn’t bring anything that does not belong here except the ‘printer,’ which disintegrates after use.”
Convenient, thought Faber. But it troubled him that his bureau could uncover no record of Allen anywhere: no fingerprints, no DNA, no photographs, nothing. His ethnicity seemed Middle Eastern, maybe. Maybe not….
“Why send anyone? Why not just monitor from a distance?”
Allen smiled with what looked to Faber like a touch of avuncular weariness. “We learned many centuries ago that observation from a distance—in other words, surveillance” (he winked) “—severely distorts our impressions. We remain outside of what we try to see, and therefore we do not see clearly. One has to be on site to gather accurate information.”
“Ours needs to be accurate too. How about if you peel off some of your skin or turn your head all the way around? Something to show how alien you are?”
“You wouldn’t be convinced. Your technology-amplified skepticism has reached a level at which anything can be duplicated and nothing need elicit belief.”
True enough. “But why should I believe any of this without proof?”
“Perhaps you shouldn’t. I have no stake in whether or not you believe me.”
“‘Last days of human life,’ you said.”
“Yes. Your species is about to go extinct.”
“Do you not watch your own news services? Global warming, mass extinction, pollinator die-offs, ocean death, industrial toxins, nuclear weapons proliferation: take your pick.” The smile seemed sad now.
“So you didn’t come to steal our resources?”
“There aren’t any left worth stealing.”
“….And you’re not here to invade?”
“Invade a dying planet? What would be the point?”
Faber shifted in his chair. “Then I ask again: why are you here?”
“We keep something you could think of as an Encyclopedia Galactica,” Allen replied in a gentle tone, smile gone now. “It is both comprehensive and popular. The entry for Humans is nearly complete. We are here to finish the article.”
“The article will serve as a warning to other immature species not to engage in self-destructive behaviors.”
“You mean we’re the galaxy’s poster child for how to wreck a planet and kill ourselves off?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“There are quite a few other species round about, then?”
“Many others. Many times many.”
“So some of those UFO claims are real?”
“Probably not. Earth is somewhat off the beaten path, in a minor solar system drifting through the Arm of Orion, as you call it. About two skips and a jump outside of a stellar nursery.”
“A pity. I guess I’ll have to stop watching all those Star Trek reruns.”
“They got the diversity part right.”
“I guess you’re one of the mature species?”
“More on the youthful end. We’ve only been around about ten million of your years. But we make up in dedication what we lack in experience.”
Faber sighed. In spite of himself he felt drawn in. For a moment the normally leashed fantasizing aspect of his mind wondered what would be most worth asking a member of a species so much older than Homo sapiens. He decided to keep playing along.
“What does your species do besides watch us?”
“Oh, many things. We delight in difficult problems.”
“Who calibrated the Higgs field giving mass to all matter? Who set the potency of dark matter and energy such that our universe can exist? We trade information on this not only with other species here, in this plenum, but with lifeforms in other universes.”
Faber had no idea what all that meant, but he focused on a word:
“Who? Not what?”
“Then you are religious?”
“More or less.”
Faber couldn’t resist: “Which of our religions is closest to the truth?” The lapsed Catholic in him still wondering, no doubt.
“All of them. None of them.”
“I think religion is easily disproven bunk.”
“Taken literally, of course it is. But not every truth is literal.”
“In terms of ethics, don’t you have a Prime Directive or something to stop you from revealing yourselves to us immature ones down here?”
“It only applies to viable species. Yours won’t be around much longer.”
Crazy words or not, they depressed Faber. His next question came with some reluctance:
“What will be your diagnosis of how did we do this to ourselves?”
“Evolutionary design flaw.” The sparseness of words jolted Faber. He blinked.
“Think of Earth as a giant organism endlessly experimenting with new forms of Life. (I say ‘giant’ loosely, for Earth is one tiny part of the living, sentient cosmos.—What, you didn’t know that the All is actually one vast, sensing body?) Members of your species are born into an unusually long period of dependency on caregivers. The result is not only complex mental development, but protracted childhood and adolescence. None of you is ever truly an adult. Little wonder you’re so impulsive.”
Faber thought it over as Allen’s wrenching analysis continued:
“Furthermore, during your Agricultural Revolution you moved from forms of society in which each depends on all to rigid hierarchies that let emotionally stunted people occupy positions of power over others. Such tyrants remain in charge by accumulating what others need to live. Utterly immoral. Your species has not been free of this sort of servitude since the first cities rose along rivers diverted for irrigation. It amazes us that you put up with it.”
“Throughout our history many revolutions have deposed tyrants.”
“Yes, but for how long? And what happens when the people are too distracted by poverty, demeaning jobs, lack of education, authoritarian propaganda, and shiny gadgetry to go on resisting?”
The words carried the tone of truth. How old, for instance, was patriarchy? Eight thousand years? Ten thousand? And still a scourage for millions. What about greed? Warfare? Probably as old as the first settlements of farmers and clerks discriminating between food and weed, settled and nomadic, ours and theirs.
“But surely we’ve been evolving all this time as well?”
“Evolving? Sixty-two individuals own half the wealth of your deteriorating world. Soon, fewer than that. What kind of evolution do you mean?”
Faber had never seen a security interview bellyflop like this. The bureau psychologists had warned him in training long ago about getting hooked by his own weaknesses—everybody had them; but he had underestimated both his own underlying despair at the looming fate of humanity and the spiritual vacuum opened when he lost his faith long ago.
“Isn’t there some way we can solve this and stick around?” He could not help asking.
“You don’t solve a rite of passage. You go through it to outgrow it. You develop beyond the need for childish trust in authoritarianism, distraction, consumption, dependency on corrupt systems controlled by a privileged few. But you need time to do that outgrowing, and your time is nearly up.”
“What if we were to ask you for help?”
“‘Take me to your leaders’? Sorry. Against the house rules. Species either mature or perish of their own self-contradictions. Tough universe.”
Faber cleared his throat. “OK, this has been entertaining. Now why were you really looking over every monument, historical marker, and key government building in Washington?”
“To remember afterwards what they were like. Others Watchers are studying great works of art, attending concerts, sitting in prayer services, dancing in festivals, playing with your children, laughing in the audiences of comedians. We want to fix in ourselves the last acts of a remarkable species cut short before its natural demise.”
“Could anything have saved us before it came to this?” Faber was surprised to hear himself almost whispering the question.
“Yes, of course. You could have listened to the mature elders among you; to the artists, the poets, the visionaries and dreamers; to the free spirits and naturalists, the thoughtful eccentrics and humorists, the street-wise mentors; and above all, to the women of every human culture. You could have kept your power instead of giving it away to those you like to refer to as politicians, clerics, and leaders. You could have embraced your own diversity, conscience, indigeneity, and creativity; and you could have recognized that your needs are also the needs of the complex and sensitive living systems within which you live. You could have caught the damage early, before your most destructive financiers took over Earth, and replied to those drunk on power with that word which is sacred on so many still-thriving worlds: ‘No.’ Instead, you went along for the ride.”
Another question occurred to Faber: “What uniquely characterizes us? What sets us apart from other species?” He feared the answer would be, “Nothing.”
“You,” replied Allen calmly, lightly, “are the precocious storytellers of the galaxy. You go around perceiving and relating tales of what you perceive. Out among the stars live superior technologies, stronger limbs, much longer memories; dirigible species that float like mist, and crystalline beings that speak through piezoelectric pulses; but Humans of Earth are the children of fantasy and imagination, poem and anecdote, narrative and song and dream. We wish to honor that, and honor you, by remembering it after you are gone.”
After that Faber had nothing to ask. He closed the file, thin as it was.
“I see no reason to detain you any longer,” he decided, “and we don’t plan to charge you with anything. You are free to go and continue with your…watching.” He levered himself to his feet.
Allen rose as well and held out his hand in the Western Human gesture of parting:
“I am sorry to bring such dismal news, although it can’t have been that surprising. I wish we foresaw a happier outcome. If it’s any consolation, you will not be forgotten. Under the heading ‘Human,’ our Encyclopedia will recall the passing of a valiant species, ebullient and vital, and with so much wondrous potential. If only….if only.” He sighed, shook his head and walked out.
After filing his report, Faber went home determined to take early retirement. The man was nuts, he thought: cleverly, eloquently nuts. But he had left in Faber a painful sense of urgency. Suppose just for the heck of it that everything was going to hell? So much living to do before then….before the article was finished.
“There was no problem arranging to be taken into custody?”
“None. Their own governments spy on them constantly. It’s a wonder any of their citizens stay out of custody.”
“What is your recommendation about Earth, then?”
“That we proceed as planned and put the entire security interview I recorded on every human media device on the planet. Every phone, watch, tablet, laptop, desktop, TV; every monitor, every billboard, every banner, every radio. Everything.” Allen was glad to be back home. Too much time among humans and their archaic toys could be wearying. The bipedalism alone felt like having three arms tied behind one’s back.
“You have all the confidential documents of their governments, religions, corporations, military, and mass media ready for global distribution as well?”
“Yes. In one rotation of their planet, every human will have access to every secret dealing everywhere. They will see and hear, with stark, alarming clarity, the real character of those to whom humanity has so wrongly given up power and allegiance.”
In what served his species for an imagination, Allen saw the blue Earth turning slowly, laced with clouds, framed by starlight, and ringed by shimmering rainbows. That beautiful world deserved so much more than crooked, small-souled rulership by elites who thought themselves above it all. She had survived four and a half billion years of cosmic cataclysm—comets, freezing, boiling vulcanism, interplanetary collision; and for what? For a swelling brood of ungrateful children who refused to grow up?
Through his musings he heard the question:
“Do you believe the recorded interview and all the other impending disclosures could make a real difference to their fate?”
“Perhaps they can. Too, it must be tremendously irritating to hear your eulogy spoken before you’re actually dead. If that doesn’t make them stand up and be accountable for themselves, nothing will.”
“How many of them will actually believe you were a Watcher?”
“It makes no difference. The conversation between Faber and I will work on them no matter what they believe. This is a people for whom story, image, tone, and fantasy come first, even when they convince themselves they are rationally inclined. —Besides, they’ve been chewing over the ‘advanced aliens’ meme for decades.”
“Yet I’m concerned that your oversimplified description of their supposed evolutionary design flaw sounded discouragingly fatalistic.”
“Don’t be. It will sting and insult them just enough to spur them onward. I hope.”
“You know, that creature Faber had a point with his ‘Prime Directive.’”
“Yes. On the other hand, though, he asked for our help. Even though Gaia asked for it first. And to think they believe themselves to be the dominant form of intelligence there.” He snorted. “Bipeds! They look up and around, but how seldom they look down.”
He emitted his species’ equivalent of a chuckle:
“They are about to get more help than they ever bargained for. And they will make strenuous and rebellious use of it just to prove me wrong.”
See also “The Rematch of Blood and Dust”