“But why? Why should they die?” asked Eteract. “You say, Gurovvu, that it’s their own doing, and that we have no obligations here. That much is true, but still, we could do something, if we wanted.” Eteract’s soft spot for strays, orphans, and misfits made him beloved by his crewmates, but it did sometimes complicate their missions.
“Actually,” said Sterali to her green-blooded companions, “it’s an open question as to whether we have the capacity to help. I suggest that we try, but restrict ourselves to doing it within the next twelve lurbs. Then we must leave orbit, if we are to stay on schedule.”
Readily agreeing on this compromise, the three turned to their respective tasks. Eteract finished analyzing electronic intercepts coming from the planet’s surface, and fed linguistic and cultural information into his intracranial translation aide. Sterali put together a dossier, in the planet’s dominant language, documenting the means for averting catastrophe. Gurovvu selected a site for Eteract to visit, printed out garb for him to wear so that he would blend in, and adjusted the transporter’s controls. Outward beaming was as much an art as a science, as she had to factor in uncertain dynamic atmospheric conditions. Transmission would be accurate to within only so many dixips.
Working efficiently, the team was soon prepared.
“Go,” Sterali said, “and warn them to consider the effects of their actions. Teach them to be mindful.”
“Galeeth,” said Eteract, and stepped into the transporter booth.
The first thing Eteract knew, as he came out of the phase-change, was that something was wrong: a loud siren was pounding his brain, tearing at his cochlear cilia, and vibrating his bowels.
The alien had materialized next to a black BMW, and the sudden air displacement had triggered its alarm. It was so disconcerting that Eteract nearly jumped out of his skin, a defense reflex evolved in his species. He exercised self-control, though, and glided away from the parked vehicle. Permanent hearing loss didn’t worry him, given Arcturan regenerative technology, but he did nervously look around to see if anyone saw him.
No one seemed to pay any attention to the terrible din that would not stop. The klaxon, intended to deter thieves, barked unheeded warnings whenever a nearby car door slammed shut. Routinely, it woke the owner, Tolliver Peal, when it was set off by an acorn falling on the hood or a cat rubbing against the tire. Tolliver never remembered the next morning and his neighbor never complained. Her own vehicle, a Nissan Rogue used for ferrying her children a thousand yards to school, yelped every time it was locked or unlocked.
From a distance, Eteract appeared as an ordinary biped, being the height of a mature human male–5 feet 9 inches, in the local units of measure. What with his twelve fingers and twelve toes, twelve inches per foot made perfect sense to the alien. Why any human being would use that system, however, he didn’t understand.
Close up, Eteract’s hair looked mossy, but what made him stand out most was his faint blue complexion. Not enough to look like a Smurf, but enough to discern–enough to be teased as a Smurf when he was a child, had he gone to a native school. On his world, though, no one knew about Smurfs. No one knew about bullying, either, or about schoolyard factions.
Eteract’s clothes, designed in the local style, draped his alien body oddly. Eteract would have come under immediate suspicion had any foot patrol seen him, but the city police officers mostly kept to their vehicles, and now one steered past without blinking, seeing only what he expected to see.
Eteract coughed on exhaust fumes and focused on his mission of mercy. It was vital to the natives’ survival that he engage their authorities, and for that, he needed to get directions.
At first, he tried to catch the eyes of passersby, but no one would look at him. As they migrated toward shops and offices to start their day, most of them stared down at their portable screens, lost to the world for reasons Eteract could not guess. The rest walked along with their heads up, unseeing as they shouted in one-sided conversations. The visitor felt invisible.
Pedestrians shuffled along as if not evolved for Earth’s gravity, with single individuals taking up both lanes of the sidewalk. Sometimes, they nearly collided with Eteract, who was keeping to his right side, and twice, he was forced to step off the walk onto the grass. Whether the natives didn’t see or didn’t care, Eteract couldn’t tell.
Eteract tested his English. “Excuse me,” he said to the nearest human being. Avery Erdmann was 54 years old, diabetic, and happily married with three pre-diabetic children. He worked as a lobbyist, which wasn’t exactly glamorous; most of his time went to managing mailing lists that targeted potential voters with one-sided special-interest literature. He heard Eteract speak, but only as a fuzzy distraction that he staunchly ignored, and he redoubled his attention on his game of video solitaire as he passed by.
Eteract tried again, with the next passerby. Megan Hume-Manoogian was 39 years old, had two children in preschool, and thought of herself as an unconventional and independent woman. She often lied about her weight, both to others and herself, and when she married, she hyphenated her name. It never occurred to her to simply keep her name, as husbands normally do, or to consider the consequences of her unsustainable policy. (If everyone followed it, her children would each end with four last names upon marriage, and their great-grandchildren would end with thirty-two…) She must have heard the strange man speak, for he was loud enough, but she was too engrossed in her texting to notice. Before Eteract could repeat himself, she was past him.
Eteract tried again. Terrence Terrell was 30 years old, not in a relationship, and still making payments on his student loans. He worked as a paralegal in a nearby law office, and wondered whether that’s how he would spend his life. He never heard Eteract repeatedly say “Excuse me,” as he was wearing earphones, and he didn’t notice Eteract trying to make eye contact, absorbed as he was by his fascinating playlist.
Eteract tried once more. Norma Geoghegan was 61 years old, with five children and sixteen grandchildren so far, and happily married. She was active in her church, she worked for the Department of Records, and she was counting the years to retirement. Norma didn’t notice Eteract either, not at first, but gradually, she grew conscious of a disheveled man keeping pace at her side. “Excuse me… excuse me… excuse me.” When she looked up from her texting, thinking someone really needed to take care of the homeless problem, this odd-looking man in his ill-fitting clothes merely asked, “Can you give me directions?
“Could you tell me which way the statehouse annex is?”
It was actually visible from where the pair stood, but neither one realized it. Eteract didn’t recognize the edifice for what it was, and Norma didn’t think to point it out.
“Yes. Um. It’s not far. I know it’s nearby. You can find it on your phone.” Norma knew how to reach the capitol office building by driving, but couldn’t say where it lay in terms of her current location. She also couldn’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t have a phone, even though the strange man was plainly not holding one.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have a phone.” Eteract had a perfectly good map in his implant, acquired from the natives’ internet, but he didn’t know his precise location on it. He could’ve tried wandering until he found a landmark, but he preferred to interact with the natives.
“Hang on, I can look it up for you.” Her fumbling through the menus took some time. The device was clumsily designed, it had come without a manual, and Norma had never bothered to look for instructions online. Eteract didn’t know whether to feel more embarrassed for the woman or for the manufacturer.
“OK, here it is. Uh. OK, this is it. Uh. You want to go that way,” she turned and pointed. “No, wait. Yes, that way. You want to go that way for two blocks, and then turn that way. Then go two blocks more, and that’s it. I knew it wasn’t too far!”
Wondering about his informant’s reliability–for earthlings, “two” could sometimes mean three or four–Eteract asked, “What’s the name of the street I turn on?”
“Let me see… Here it is. It’s Commerce.” It was a main artery that Norma crossed twice a day, five days a week. “You can’t miss it.”
“Well, thank you very much. You’ve been very helpful, and I really appreciate it.”
“Good luck!” Norma turned back and continued on her way. She had been so focused on the GPS, she never noticed the alien’s bluish tone.
Eteract walked three blocks to reach Commerce, and then turned right, past a window with a giant poster. Illustrating the fare offered inside, and stimulating appetite where hunger did not exist, it said in big bold letters, “Buy One Sub, Get One Free.” In small print at the bottom, it said, “with purchase of two beverages.” The layout puzzled Eteract; he wasn’t familiar with the concept of bait-and-switch, and it didn’t occur to him that dishonorable merchants might manage to stay in business.
From the corner, Eteract walked two more blocks and crossed the street. The capitol’s splendor made it stand out from the tawdry cafés and shops around it, and from the cigarette butts and other trash strewn on the ground. One piece of refuse, a soda bottle made of polyethylene terephthalate, bore a listing of ingredients Etereact could read from forty feet away. What are they doing to themselves?, he wondered. Do they not understand, or do they just not care?
Eteract ascended twelve feet of stone steps, entered through the doorways, and found himself facing a security checkpoint. Evidently, the guards were scanning for weapons, but offhand, Eteract could think of nine ways to circumvent the system. Four of them would require using Arcturan technology that he had not brought along, three would require local collaborators, and two methods were available to any lone native in this land where guns outnumbered people. Who, Eteract wondered, was the costly farce designed for? Were the authorities trying to fool the public, or were they fooling themselves?
As Eteract went through the scanner, a uniformed guard carefully observed him. Richard Burdick sported tattoos, meant to intimidate, on his arms and neck. (Tattoos had once signaled membership in the underworld of drugs and gangsterism, but now, police forces were adopting the look.) Richard was 44 years old and father to two girls and a boy, whom he favored. He suspected he drank too much, and occasionally tried to cut down. If he stopped drinking so much, maybe he would lose some belly, though that would just be frosting on the donut.
Dismissing thoughts of his snack break, Richard struggled to decide what to do. On the one hand, the freakish man coming through had his attention. Richard distrusted anything unconventional or out of his ordinary experience, and he badly wanted to know what the blue dye was about. On the other hand, the machine hadn’t beeped and Richard was instructed to be culturally sensitive. He wasn’t allowed to comment on the funny hats some people wear in order to feel godly, or to ask men who wore robes what religion they belonged to. Maybe Jews; he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t allowed to ask Muslim women why some covered the tops of their heads while others covered their faces too; he didn’t understand the teachings of his own religion, let alone others.
What the hell, Richard thought; he would pry. “That’s some pretty cool make-up.”
“Thank you,” said Eteract, wanting to get on his way.
Richard wasn’t allowed to interrogate visitors, but he could put them through an extra screening. “Step over here, please.
“Please lift your arms.”
Wielding his magnetic wand, Richard verified what the walk-through scanner had already told him, and informed Eteract that he was free to go. Richard sometimes groused that he couldn’t detain people at will, as the guards over at TSA did, but he was secretly glad to work at the Capitol. The work wasn’t as hectic, and he had less supervision. Exercising power over others was much better than being on the receiving end.
Eteract was in! Now he just had to introduce himself to an official, and take it from there.
Going up to the nearest legislative office, Eteract saw that it belonged to one Eugenia Nixon. The name gave him pause. Knowing that human names could reflect clan affiliations, Eteract wondered whether this Nixon was related to the notorious former tribal chief. “Tricky Dick” was actually no worse than several other American presidents when it came to subverting the rule of law, but he was unusual in that his arrogation of power was widely known and accepted. The “silent majority” didn’t much care that Nixon obliterated neutral Cambodian civilians, empowered Pol Pot’s genocidal regime, lied to his own voters, spied on his critics, and generally defied restrictions on his legal authority: it let him resign office without demanding inquiries into charges of high treason. Such acceptance of despotism was hard for Eteract to understand, given the natives’ proud espousal of liberty and self-government. Their capacity for partisan doublethink would warrant further study; it might prove key to understanding them.
As fast as the thought occurred to him, Eteract dismissed any connection between the two Nixons. He grasped enough Earth history to figure that Eugenia had no overt ties to Richard Milhous. She was not party to the kind of naked nepotism that began as early as the John Adamses and continued with the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes, Clintons, and Trumps. She was beneficiary to a generalized class privilege which somehow coexisted with the tribe’s faith that they lived under a meritocracy. It made no sense at all, yet the natives’ naive idealism endeared them to Eteract.
Entering Eugenia Nixon’s suite of offices, Eteract was soused by an invisible fog that made the inside of his face itch. The receptionist, Mia Small, exuded a toxic concoction of lavender and unregulated secret ingredients, including some proprietary carcinogenic petrochemicals. Although she adored perfume, she didn’t apply it inside her own nostrils, where she could smell it best; instead, she wore it so as to make everyone else smell it. She never gave a thought to the bad reactions that she caused, but she smiled a lot and no one called her out on her narcissism.
“Welcome to the Capitol! How can I help you?”
Eteract couldn’t reveal his real purpose to the receptionist: early in their history of visiting uncertified planets, the Arcturans had once triggered tragic mass hysteria among natives, and their laws now required making first contact through official authorities only.
“I’m hoping to have two minutes with Representative Nixon. Does she have walk-in hours?” Two minutes in person would be enough to convince Nixon that he was an actual alien, at which point she would expedite access to the planet’s higher leadership.
“And who may I ask is calling?” The receptionist’s reply took the visitor aback. Aside from having his question ignored, it seemed obvious to Eteract that he would already have given his name if it had meant anything to Nixon or her staff. Nonetheless, not wishing to offend, Eteract playfully said, “Jeremiah Ford.” He had no qualms in adopting a name his interlocutor would find pronounceable; on the contrary, to expect her to grasp the consonants and vowels of his name in his own language, when she did not speak it, would have been rude.
“And what does this concern?” Again, the receptionist’s question took the visitor aback. On one level, the receptionist knew full well Eteract’s business: presumably a voter, he wanted to say something to the public’s representative. Evidently, the receptionist wanted to know more than this, but Eteract couldn’t understand to what end. Why would she want to screen visitors for a two-minute meeting with a mid-level politician whose job included greeting the constituents who call on him? Why would she want to spend a minute briefing Nixon for the sake of a two-minute meeting?
Eteract wanted to say that the fate of the world was at stake, and he was here to help, but he prudently controlled himself. He said, “I would like to thank Representative Nixon for the work she’s doing, and to offer her free technical reports from my consulting agency, Arcturus & Associates.”
“Representative Nixon is currently out of town. Would you like to make an appointment for next week?”
Eteract politely declined and left the office, doubly confused. Why did the receptionist need to know his name, and his reason for calling, in order to tell him that Nixon was unavailable, and before asking whether he wanted an appointment? Chitin clicked inside his thorax, the Arcturan equivalent of a sigh. Such a subtle people! Eteract must get to know them better.
Four hours and sixty-two offices later, Eteract was still being rebuffed. It was slow going because the receptionists never admitted that a representative was unavailable without first questioning him and sometimes making him wait. It was almost as if there was a conspiracy to keep the public from the government. Yet, Eteract knew better: individual officials didn’t need to conspire for the “invisible hand” to achieve a collective effect.
It now occurred to Eteract that a bribe would secure an immediate meeting. He estimated that five thousand dollars would be enough to get attention, but not so much as to make his offer seem like a prank, or him like a crank. Of course, it would be called a “campaign contribution,” but both he and the politician would know what it really was. As quickly as the unworthy idea emerged, however, Eteract rejected it. Arcturans stayed clear of scams, flimflams, grift and graft. That included promises of payola, regardless of how it was called.
Six hours and one hundred offices after beaming down, Eteract entered the suite of Charles “Chuckle” Klotzkopf, and before he knew it, he found himself ushered into an inner office. There, a statuesque woman extended her hand. “Good afternoon, I’m Representative Klotzkopf’s chief of staff, Blythe Saint Germaine.” She ignored the constituent’s unhealthy look, as she had ignored her grade-school lessons about communicable diseases, habitually shaking everyone’s hand. Blythe thought of herself as a warm people person; she could make most anyone like her, or so she thought.
The truth is that plenty found her to be phoney or overbearing, and she was clueless. In a typical year, she would succumb to one or two bouts with viruses, ranging from sniffles to debilitating flu, and she always infected others. In 2012, without suffering any symptoms of her own, she passed a bug to an 82-year-old woman who wound up dying from pneumonia. Blythe never knew what she had wreaked. If told, she would have airily denied it.
In beaming down, Eteract had been scrubbed. He carried no microbial threats to Earth, and any that he picked up would be left behind when he beamed back to his ship. He shook hands with his right while waving some papers in his left to distract Blythe from noticing the six fingers. Once again he was grilled, only to find that he was wasting his time.
As Eteract emerged from his one-hundred-and-nineteenth office, his intracranial implant identified Senator Nick Andropoulos, from a web photo, walking down the corridor. This was it! First contact was now to be established.
Andropoulos entered his own suite, with Eteract closing in just twelve feet behind him. By the time Eteract caught up and went through the door, no one was to be seen.
“Hello? Senator Andropoulos?”
A young man, Lyle Evers, came out from a back room. “Can I help you?”
“Could I get a selfie with Senator Andropoulos?”
“Just a moment.” Lyle held his finger up and went into a back room. Through the closed door, Eteract could hear an exchange of voices. Then, Lyle returned with a big smile. “Why don’t you have a seat? It’ll be just a minute. In the meanwhile, can I get you some water?”
“No, thank you.” Eteract had previously noticed plastic water bottles populating every office in the building. They helped explain the great gyres of garbage his team had sighted in the world’s oceans, but the puzzle remained as to why bottled water was used instead of equally good faucet water. It was as if the natives went out of their way to foul their own nest. Something was not right with them, and it tugged at both of Eteract’s hearts.
Even so, Eteract trilled with relief. Soon, he would meet with a leader of the earthlings, and without any interrogational rigmarole either.
Four minutes later, a woman entered the room. Annie Pearson, unbeknownst to Eteract, was the receptionist; Lyle was her assistant, not the senator’s. “How can I help you?”
“I’ve been helped, thank you. I’m just waiting for the senator.”
“Senator Andropoulos is not available today. Would you like to make an appointment for another time?”
Exerting himself, Eteract kept his chitin from clicking. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. I’m heading on my way out of town. But I don’t mind waiting until the senator has just a moment to spare.”
“As I said, the senator is not available today. The office is closing now, and I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
By stringing him along instead of speaking forthrightly, Lyle kept Eteract from trying one more office before closing hours, and now Annie Pearson was implying that the senator was altogether absent. What was the point of their deceitfulness? Why did it need to take five minutes for Eteract to find out he couldn’t see Andropoulos, with a runaround serving no one’s purposes? It didn’t have to be this way. Earthlings could attain greatness, if only they would look beyond their own noses.
Feeling as if bruised all over, the blue visitor forced a weak smile. “Could you have his staff take a look at these documents?” He extended his dossier, which detailed exact environmental outcomes for several different scenarios; the general thrust matched the findings that human scientists had been reporting for decades. Eteract suspected they would be buried–first in this terrestrial bureaucracy, and then in a landfill—yet, it was all he could do.
The emissary come down to save the planet, green inside and blue in the face, left the government building. Dejectedly keeping pace with the workers, he returned to the original beam point, tears streaming out of his ears. Eteract’s time had run out. The only question was, would Earth’s too?