In this, or any, age where truth is at a premium, and truth is a foreign concept, we all need someone like this lady to cut through the political nonsense, sexual innuendo, secrets, bravado and attempts at outside control, the backstabbing, the hidden interests, the egos and glad-handing, the spies and outside agencies… Because, you never really know where it’s all going to come from. – lp
Every time Laura De Souza, the first woman ever to be appointed Secretary General of the United Nations, stepped to the podium to address the General Assembly, she thought of Mr. Headley, her English grade-twelve teacher. Not suited for University or College, a career in retail is recommended. Gloating in his white privilege, these twelve words were all he wrote, about the future of yet another Latino girl that had the audacity to be included in his class. Forty years later, they were still etched in her brain.
For decades, she had used them to fuel the fire of her ambition, until, the day of her nomination as the leader of the free and not so free world, she had decided to pay her debt to him. She had tracked him down in a retirement community not more than twenty miles from her high school and sent him, using priority mail, a copy of the report card and her official picture, signed and stamped with the seal of the UN General Secretary. The words Retail this, asshole were elegantly written on it.
Petty? Probably, but to her credit, she hadn’t gone through with her original intent of having one of the UN officers take a picture of his droopy mug as he opened her letter.
Pushing away those comforting but ultimately useless thoughts, she grunted to clear her voice. Today, the assembly was at full capacity as, next to the delegates she sparred with every day, sat the arrogant scowls of the heads of state of all the countries on Earth. She had requested their presence, and they had all obliged, recognizing the momentous occasion that would most likely morph into the ultimate photo-op.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she began, silencing the incessant murmur. “Delegates and heads of state. The newest measurements are in from the WCL.”
Her first act as General Secretary had been to group all the credible environmental scientists under one institution, the World Climate Laboratory, or WCL, reporting directly to the UN. Making all the governments in the world agree that they would only refer only to the findings of the WCL to enact policies regarding climate change had been her first battle and her first victory.
The impatience in the room became palpable as the incessant muttering between neighbors resumed, making the assembly sound like a class of hormonal teenagers. Laura decided she had made them broil enough and swept through the room with her piercing brown eyes, leaving only silence in their wake.
“For the first time in the last two centuries, the average global temperature has gone down,” she announced, nodding at one of the two men that had escorted her into the assembly. Anthony, her personal assistant for the last two years, nodded back. During her tenure, she had chewed through dozens of assistants, none of which had lasted over six months. Anthony was as dimwit as the previous ones, but he hadn’t had any major screw ups and the amount of abuse he could take seemed limitless, so the partnership was continuing. She heard a click coming from his right hand, and a giant -0.3 C appeared on the screen behind her.
The applause started from the bottom right of the assembly, where the African countries sat, but spread like wildfire. Most stood up, increasing the vigor of their clapping, and many looked up, thanking God or whatever divinity they believed in, for humanity’s greatest triumph.
Really, her triumph. There was no doubt in Laura De Souza’s mind that it had been achieved despite the people in this room, not thanks to them. Without her at the helm, by now Earth would have been a wasteland dredged by tornadoes and tsunamis, with half the landmass at unbearable temperatures and billions of people either dead or relocated.
“More importantly, if we keep the level of emissions we have now,” Laura continued as another click came from behind her back, “Earth’s temperature will be back at mid-twentieth century levels in three years, and will be able to claim victory on the greatest crises of our time.”
A graph showing a rapidly declining curve validated his words, as the announcement the entire world had been waiting for half a century immediately turned the ordinate assembly into a mob, pushing their behavior past the code of conduct of the hall. She saw hugs, kisses, inappropriate touching, many flasks appeared and clunk against each other before being raised to as many mouths. Impromptu concerts started using traditional instruments lifted from under several desks, while vapers were lit and passed around.
Laura couldn’t help smirk at the smell of marijuana filling the hall. Hormonal teenagers indeed.
She took a quick glance at the Holo viewership numbers at the bottom right of the teleprompter. As the word was spreading, the initial four-point-two figure started increasing rapidly. Bringing the general public around, ready as it was to believe any load of bullshit spewed on the social media platform du jour, had been her second hard-fought victory. She had achieved it by forcing any legitimate journalistic outlet to use blockchain technology, making possible to always check the original source of the reported news, and to keep a record of any manipulations along the way.
Once the remote audience reached the ten billion mark, she nodded to the other man behind her. His face was pale, but he stepped forward, ready to be thrown into the spotlight. It was time to announce what was going to happen next.
All her advisors had told Laura to wait, let the world celebrate for a while, before saddling it with a new problem. But as usual, she knew better. She needed to direct humanity’s newfound unity towards the next challenge, before bordering country rivalries could rekindle or the handful of superpowers left could begin another race for perceived world superiority.
“This is a victory of ALL humanity,” she resumed, “but we can’t just rest on our laurel. It is now time to turn our attention to the next great challenge. Without the threat of climate change, Earth’s population will increase even faster, and given the finite resources at our disposal, we need to look outward. It’s time to expand humanity’s presence past Earth and into the universe.”
She stopped realizing that the assembly wasn’t looking at her anymore. A man, who Laura had never seen before, was walking towards the center of the room. Her first thought was wondering how he got past security, but then her mind went blank.
His perfect physique, muscular but not too bulky, the flawless face and hair and, when he smiled at her, the perfect teeth and beautiful blue eyes melted Laura’s resolve and she started feeling warm in all the most inappropriate places. She was staring at the perfect specimen of a human male.
Laura cursed at herself. She was a fifty-eight-year-old woman, who had renounced very early to a steady relationship for the sake of her career, and, to be honest, had never found much interest in having sex with any of the seven recognized genders. What was she doing fawning over a stranger that had just waltzed into the room?
Still, it took a considerable effort for Laura to stop staring at his flawless ass and look back at the audience. She saw a similar reaction in everybody’s faces. The adoration was absolute.
Bullshit! She thought. Since the guards were as smitten as everybody else, she was going to have to kick him out herself.
Determined, she approached him but when the man begun talking, her willpower evaporated again. His voice was a perfect symphony, and his smell was just the right combination of pheromones and honey.
“Earthlings!” he commenced, and with every word he rose in the air, floating slowly towards the center of the giant room. “I come in peace. Unfortunately, I can’t show my real form, as you wouldn’t be able to fully understand it, so to put you at ease, your senses are being manipulated to see me as the most appealing human you could ever imagine. Each one of you will also hear me speaking in your own mother tongue.”
More than half the delegates had already their phones in their hand to take pictures.
“Now please sit down. I’ll be brief, but I need everybody to understand clearly what I’m about to say.”
Eager to please the newcomer, the entire audience instantly forgot their previous juvenile behavior and turned into a perfectly composed class.
“Your solar system is in the jurisdiction of Cosmic Assembly 29-B, an organism not dissimilar to this one, but on a much larger scale,” the alien continued. “Its mandate is to maintain peace and encourage mutual collaboration between species in this corner of the galaxy.
“We have been following your efforts on curtailing the first real extinction threat that most intelligent species face, the degeneration of their native ecosystem under the strain of advanced technology and a ballooning population, and we have been very impressed by how you have handled it…”
Laura sighed in relief. Her mind, once she had rescued it from the slippery slope of uncontrollable biological attraction, had immediately gone to the worst-case scenario, the all-powerful alien race announcing they were about to begin harvesting human organs.
Instead, it looked like humanity had stumbled on a trope typical of many of the science fiction shows so popular at the turn of the century. The benevolent aliens had decided that Earth had evolved enough to be offered a seat in the galactic parliament. Her work in defusing the climate crises seemed to have provided an unexpected boon. She couldn’t help beaming with pride even more.
“… a little too impressed.”
“The way you have rallied together as a species to reach a common goal in just a few decades is very uncommon and ultimately not desirable.”
Laura wasn’t going to let this impossibly attractive alien ruin her moment. “What are you talking about? Would you have preferred if we’d all died on a scorched planet?”
The alien smiled. “I’ve been warned about your penchant for hyperboles. No, you wouldn’t have ALL died. All species go through climate crises, but they come out of it with a reduction of one to two thirds of the population. While it may sound horrible, that loss of life is the product of a healthy balance between individualism and mob mentality. It also helps to plan the next steps of their journey as a species – spacefaring and the contact with other intelligent life forms – with the right mindset. Sustainability and spirit of adventure, not desperation for the lack of resources on your home planet.”
Laura couldn’t believe her ears.
“Throughout its history, humanity has shown a worrisome propensity to being able to forgo personal instincts and beliefs to unite in large groups and mindlessly follow one or few individuals, no matter what they dictate. And the way you defeated the climate threat is no exception.”
“But it was for a good cause!” Laura blurted out.
“In this instance yes, but the Council is afraid of what your ability to rally could cause once it comes in contact with other species of the quadrant, which don’t have the same capacity to come together. All the projections show a high probability of war, occupation and genocide to follow, something that the Council is not willing to risk.”
An icy shiver ran up Laura’s spines. Are they going to destroy Earth? Is that what her legacy was going to be, the leader that caused human extinction?
“Are you going to kill us all?” Laura forced herself to ask.
“What? No…” the magnificent alien replied. “Haven’t you heard what I just said? The Council abhors genocide more than anything. We’ll just take away your spacefaring ability.”
Chatters resumed among the delegates as a vision of a cosmic cage built around Earth popped in Laura’s mind, before she chased it away. “How?”
“For the next fifteen years, we’ll increase the gravity of your planet by one percent every year.”
All faces in the room looked confused, except the one of the man Laura had been about to introduce.
“The tyranny of the rocket equation,” he said, with a heavy Italian accent. He was close enough to the podium for the microphone to pick up his remark.
“Who are you?” a different but equally heavy accented voice shouted from a seat in the front row.
“This is Professor Andrea Fortunati,” Laura introduced him. “I was going to announce the creation of a new entity, the Global Space Faring Initiative, and Professor Fortunati is who I had envisioned to lead it.”
“Wonderful!” the floating alien said. “You are exactly the right person to explain the consequences of our intervention with words everybody can understand. Do you mind?”
Fortunati nodded and cleared his throat. “With the current gravity, the most efficient chemical reaction we can produce requires eighty-five percent of cargo to be fuel in order for a rocket to reach orbit from Earth’s surface. Increase the gravity of fifteen percent and the amount of fuel necessary would exceed the actual weight of the spaceship.”
“Exactly. With your current level of technology, you would never be able to leave your planet.”
“But…” Fortunati turned to the alien, “Such a change in gravity will have repercussions on a much larger scale, the moon would get closer and cause cataclysmic tides, for example, not to mention how hard it would be for the human body to handle the extra pressure-”
“You don’t have to worry about any of that,” the alien interrupted him. “We are also going to alter the mass of all celestial bodies surrounding Earth so that their gravitational effects on your planet won’t change an iota. Also, the fifteen-year period is the exact right length for your bodies to adjust, helped by supplements specifically designed for that. Their chemical composition and a set of instructions on how to manufacture them efficiently will be broadcast to all your channels as soon as I’m done here. We are also confident that you will be able to modify your existing industrial and transportation industries to handle the difference in gravity to come.”
“What about overpopulation?” Laura blurted out. “We are bursting at the seams right now, we won’t be able to handle growth much more without going off world.”
“Who said that you need to keep increasing your population?” the alien replied. “I’m sure you can use that ability of yours to unite under an ideal to impose a zero growth policy,” he added with a wink, and, for the first time, Laura felt the impulse to smash that sublime face in pieces.
She wasn’t the only one, judging by the many angry stares appearing in the audience.
“Why so upset?” the alien continued. “You’ll keep living a fulfilling existence on your planet without interruption, and nobody else in the galaxy will get hurt. Now if there’s nothing else…”
“What about other ways of getting to orbit not relying on chemical fuels?” Professor Fortunati blurted out. “There have been many studies about the feasibility of space elevators or slings. What if we develop those technologies?”
“Yes!” Laura immediately latched onto his words. “Also, judging by how you float around, you must use some more advanced technology to manipulate gravity. What happens if we discover it? Will this Council of yours take it away from us too?”
A subtle smile curved the alien’s perfect lips. “The likelihood of your species achieving those technologies bound to the surface of your planet is infinitely small, but you’re welcome to try. If your species can overcome those odds, maybe you are destined to be space faring, and the Council will have to live with that.”
* * *
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Laura De Souza swept through the corridor connecting the UN General assembly to the office wing with the fury of a tsunami. Whoever was on her path immediately fled to higher ground, mostly metaphorically, disappearing into one of the side doors, but a few actually jumping on the benches lined against the wall. She had been the first one to snap out of her stupor and leave the assembly hall once the alien had disappeared into thin hair. Anthony was barely keeping up with her.
When they reached the elevators, she smashed the UP button with all her strength.
Anthony bulked. “I’m sorry… Is there something I can do?”
She looked at him like his already low IQ had just dropped by thirty points. “No, there’s nothing you can do! There’s nothing ANYONE can do!”
She felt like crying, for the first time since Mr. Headley had told her that the local Walmart was having a job fair while she was packing up her high-school locker.
“Today was supposed to be my triumph. Instead, it turns out I condemned my entire species to never leave this stupid planet!”
Maybe she should have listened to Mr. Headley, instead of pursuing the two undergrads and three PhDs that had landed her the UN General Secretary job.
“But… you couldn’t know, and you still saved billions of people.”
“Until they start eating each other when we run out of food!”
A loud ding came from the elevator and the door opened, revealing two interns inside. The look on Laura’s face sent them scurrying away, and she and Anthony took possession of the empty cabin. The ensuing thick silence was suddenly interrupted by a riff of death metal coming from Laura’s pocket.
“Of course, the biggest idiot had to be first one to call!” she yelled, taking out her phone and sending the call to voice mail.
Laura used different ringtones for each head of state, on a descending scale of cacophony from the most pain in the ass to the most easily manipulated. The president of the United States and his giant ego had earned the loudest one.
Soon a loud country song followed, then ear worming pop.
“Screw them all!” Laura blurted, switching her phone off.
They arrived at her corner office, and not even the beautiful panorama of New York City, with all the vertical forests that had transformed one of the most polluted cities in the world into the gold standard of sustainable living could calm her one bit. On the contrary, the view infuriated her even more, the very embodiment of her failures.
She deflated on her chair. “You know what? I think I need something strong.”
She saw Anthony’s eyes widen. All she ever drunk was sparkling water. Nothing else was present in the fridge hidden into the beautiful mahogany corner armoire.
“But… We don’t have any alcoholic beverages,” he replied.
“Then go buy me some!”
Anthony hurried to the door, stepped outside the office, and turned to look at her. “Any preferences?”
Laura grabbed a glass globe from her desk, the Human of the Century trophy she had won only a few months earlier, and raised over her head to hurl it at Anthony. Her assistant got the message and left, closing the door behind him. She dropped the trophy back on her desk, only to swipe off of it with a quick motion. The globe fell into the garbage bin with a clank.
Ten seconds later, the beautiful alien materialized in front of her.
It took Laura a few moments to quell her animal instincts again before addressing him. “What do you want? If you are here to rub it in-”
“No, now that my council duties are concluded, I have some… unofficial business to discuss,” he interrupted her, swaying his head just enough for his perfect hair to gently move as if a tropical breeze was going through them.
Laura’s body shivered in desire. “That’s it! I can’t talk to you unless you change your aspect.”
“All I want to do is strip naked and have your alien babies. At fifty-eight, after going through menopause, that’s hardly rational behavior. If you want to have a serious discussion, you HAVE to change the way you look and smell.”
The man’s face opened in surprise, but then he nodded. “Ok, maybe if I look like you it would make it easier?”
He transformed into an exact copy of Laura, including the business suit she was wearing.
“Seriously?” she blurted, “What makes you think I would feel comfortable talking to myself?”
He seemed genuinely surprised by her reaction. “I just… thought that given the amount of time the average human spends in front of the mirror, this was an agreeable solution, but I see I was wrong. Maybe I can find someone if I skim over your memories.”
“Wait, you can read my mind?”
“Nah… I just get a few flashes of the things you remember the most.”
Laura saw her doppelgänger narrow her eyes and felt a weird itch traveling through her scalp, unsure if it was a figment of her imagination or caused by something the alien was doing.
“You seem to think about one of your old teachers quite a bit…” the alien finally said, and suddenly Mr. Headley was in front of her, staring at her with his trademark patronizing expression.
“NO!” Laura yelled. “JUST NO!”
“No reason to get upset,” he replied, and suddenly a somewhat familiar figure replaced the old professor. It took her a second to recognize the face, helped by the uniform he was wearing.
“Is this ok?” the barista of the UN resident Starbucks asked her. A cappuccino and a pain-au-chocolat every morning was Laura De Souza’s only daily indulgence.
“It will do,” she replied, nodding to the nametag pinned on the green polyester vest he was wearing. “And at least now I have a name to call you by, Steve.”
Alien Steve chuckled.
“So? What is this unofficial business of yours?”
“Aside from the Council in its entirety, I also represent a less… sanctioned group that operates inside it.”
“A secret faction?”
“So to speak, yes. We believe that your species’ characteristic of achieving things by mindlessly following a capable leader has too much potential to be simply caged and forgotten.”
Laura sat back in her chair, as a warm feeling filled her body. “I couldn’t agree more, Steve.”
“We are willing to help you attain your space faring dream.”
“You can convince the Council to revert their decision?”
“No, I’m afraid that won’t be possible. A public resolution like that cannot be changed. It would undermine the Council’s power and threaten its very existence, and nobody wants that. But we can secretly get you started on developing the type of non-chemical technology that would allow your species to go to orbit even with the increase in gravity. Like I said earlier, the Council rarely interferes if a species manages to overcome their restrictions all on their own.”
Laura placed her elbows on her desk and joined the tips of her fingers.
“What’s the catch?”
“Why would you help us? I’m sure it’s not just galactic solidarity for the new species on the block that motivates your faction.”
“All we ask is that you, or whoever the leader of humanity will be when the time comes…”
Laura couldn’t help feeling deep satisfaction at being called the leader of humanity by the first ever alien to appear on Earth, but, ever the professional, she maintained her focused expression.
“…keeps a line of communication opened with representatives of my faction and an open mind when certain requests may come down from us, regarding situations for which your species and its peculiar ability to blindly follow who’s in charge are valuable assets.”
All sorts of horrible scenarios began playing in Laura’s head. Was Steve the barista asking her to pay for Earth’s spacefaring ability with a human army to be used in a distant war in some corner of the galaxy to be determined later?
“Do we have a deal?” alien Steve asked. “All I need is a yes, and I will order the secret transmission of the first blueprints that will get your scientists on their way.”
Laura opened her mouth to answer, when she heard two knocks. Before she could bark back not to come in, the door opened, and Anthony walked in holding two plastic bags.
“I got beer, red wine, gin, vodka and tomato juice, in case you’d like a bloody…” he stopped when he saw Steve staring at him.
“Bastard!” Anthony swore, letting the bags go and rushing toward Steve. By the time he had his hands around the barista’s throat, most of the bottles had shattered on the floor.
Laura froze, wondering about the reason for the feud between low-level personnel she was witnessing.
“You were warned,” Anthony was screaming, “do you want our species to lose its seat in the Council and be caged like the humans?”
It took a second for Laura to understand that Anthony’s beef was with Steve the alien, not the barista.
Steve grabbed Anthony’s hands and forced a few words out. “Easy… Can we just talk?”
Anthony threw him to the ground. Steve landed on the broken glass but didn’t seem to care about the cuts on his skin.
“I’m doing this for our species,” Steve said, coughing. “To make us more relevant.”
“Really? Two of the last five species we have been assigned to contact by the Council managed to overcome the restrictions placed on them. Have it ever occurred to you that it might raise some suspicions?”
Steve stood up. “What are you saying? Is this a setup?”
“You can say that. Earth is full of Council’s spies, waiting for the locals to somehow discover the type of antigravitational technology they never should, stuck on the surface of their planet. Because that’s what you offered them, didn’t you?”
Steve looked down, embarrassed, the same expression Laura had seen on his face when he botched a latte order.
Laura spotted a feeble ray of light in humanity’s bleak future. “Are you saying that this was just a trap? You ordered the restriction on space faring just to flush out some traitors?”
“No, sorry to tell you that the Council’s decision on your species’ fate is real,” Anthony said. “And, while I have the misfortune of being of the same species as this scum, I don’t work for the Council, so I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it anyway. Luckily, our leaders had the foresight to place me where they thought the offer would be made…”
It all suddenly made sense. Anthony hadn’t fulfilled the constant stream of Laura’s taxing requests out of a sense of duty to her and her office, but to fulfill a higher purpose.
“… and now I can nip it in the bud before the Council gets a sniff on it.”
Laura sighed, but her brain was already devising a Plan B.
“Not so fast,” she told Anthony with a smirk. “There’s something I’ve the habit to do, something that I don’t tell even my assistants.”
She slid open a panel on her desk, revealing a screen and a few buttons. She clicked one and Steve’s voice delivering his secret faction’s proposal filled the room for a few seconds.
“I record all conversations in this office,” Laura continued. “It has been very helpful in the past to bring to reason the heads of state that tried to intimidate me because of my gender or ethnicity. And don’t think for a second you can use whatever superior technology you possess to get rid of it. Every recording gets instantly encrypted and stored using blockchain technology in dozens of secret clouds disseminated all over the Internet and constantly replicating. The laws of math ensure that complete obliteration is impossible, and any tampering will instantly cause to be broadcast through any certified news channel, to be enjoyed by the Council’s spies. The same will happen if I don’t personally type a specific code in the system every day.”
Anthony’s face reddened in anger for the first time in the two years they had been working together. “You know, we can just erase your entire Internet.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Laura replied without missing a beat, “but how would the Council’s spies take such a radical move? You never mentioned the elimination of our world wide web being part of humanity’s sanctions.”
Anthony clenched his teeth. “If you think your little trick would make us give you the anti-grav technology, think again. I’d rather show the Council that we tried to self-correct than be caught red-handed.”
“Oh no, we will accept our fate,” Laura said. “Humans have handled much worse in their history than fifteen percent of gravity increase in fifteen years. But once it’s done, your species’ involvement with ours should be concluded, and it’s reasonable to expect that the Council’s spies would leave Earth, correct?”
Steve and Anthony both nodded.
“Humanity will only develop the non-chemical anti-grav technology after that. You will still give us the knowledge Steve offered me today, but I’ll make sure we won’t start using it earlier than fifteen years from now.”
Laura saw her assistant’s face relax a bit.
“Slow and steady wins the space race…” Laura smirked, before assuming a deadly serious expression. “Do we have a deal?”
“I can’t make any promises,” Anthony finally said. “But I’ll take your proposal to my superiors.”
“Sure, but don’t take too long,” she replied, caressing the buttons on the console, then turned to Steve. “Also, tell your faction, or anybody else for that matter, not to expect any kind of gratitude or future favors to be rendered by my species.”
Steve nodded, then faded out of existence together with Anthony.
UN Secretary General Laura De Souza took a deep breath, lying back in her faux leather chair.
It looked like this Galactic Council was as full of secrecy, backstabbing and hidden schemes as the UN General Assembly. She smiled, knowing that humanity would do just fine navigating it – as long as she was in charge.