The year was 2079 and half the earth was anarcho-communist.
Aliens had been discovered six years earlier, a series of telescopes in Paraguay picking up a signal that, when deciphered by twelve year olds on the internet, simply said, ‘what go on?’
Discovered was a generous term
Contacted by was more accurate
But the Americans insisted on it, and everyone had to listen to the Americans as they had funded the telescope construction, at least fifteen percent of it, and when the second message arrived two days after the first, they used their satellites to intercept and their machines to translate and a six hour star-stunted special to present it back to the world.
The content of the second message?
‘We visit. Don’t move.’
By 2074, it was clear the aliens were at best a casual type of creature, at worst, barefaced liars, as their ships were nowhere to be seen, and the radar systems that few understood weren’t detecting any blips in the Kuiper Belt and people online were going back to The Oort Cloud Chronicles and Love Factor 6, and the politicians got bored too, realigning themselves to different struggles [the war on acrylic!], leaving the alien paraphernalia to the fringe and hoping with a great degree of confidence that taxpayers would forget about all the money they’d splurged on the Welcome to Earth/Please share your tech banners.
A year later, it was as if the aliens had never existed.
Of course, their exact nature was still debated by philosophy students, philosophy professors, philosophers for hire, anarchists, UFO enthusiasts, lunatics, people sitting next to lunatics in diners, astronomers, libertarians, exo-biologists, endo-biologists, Pluto lovers etc. but most people shrugged their shoulders [in spirit] and returned to quotidian life, thinking about food, food, food, food, food, creative pursuits, food and writing thank you letters to the scientists who’d perfected fusion.
The actual, real, genuine, couldn’t possibly be a lie truth was…the aliens were hanging out at a Lagrange point near Eris when they’d sent the signals.
And it hadn’t been intentional either.
One of their more senior observers had gotten so used to the ‘on base’ routine of their Eris habitat that, when they were told it was time to go home and spawn, they responded by fragmenting, stripping down to their core and hiding in the helium pools. That would’ve been fine, it had happened before on other bases…all they needed was enough time to program the nano-kleps, make sure the input data was sufficiently xenophobic…but this observer knew the routine and, somehow, managed to access the computer from the pools themselves.
Fortunately, they didn’t send any threats to the humans, but they did introduce themselves as a form of object-reality – an alien to their normal – and that was something difficult to walk back from.
With the curtain down, the first thing the aliens did was follow protocol, obviously.
It had worked with the Nabians, the Kontolians, the Crux, the Trv, the N’es Sa Kiluugi, almost all the species they’d come across, the only exceptions coming in the form of the Canni Tut, a race who believed everything beyond their planet was illusory, the Gok Ju Pah who communicated in onomatopoeia, and the Terzo Collective, who just wanted to eat them.
Step One of protocol: count the number of dictatorships
That was easy enough. The Kingdom of Wessex, North Korea, Old China, Old Confederacy and Rhode Island.
Step Two: consume their alien-related entertainment
Unsettling, at times cartoonish, but not without hope.
Step Three: test their treatment of the downtrodden
This one could be assessed from the base, of course, via the data feed, but sometimes the curved green walls got stifling and dull and…what better way to combat base depression than with open field work.
Despite concerns about the masks and the make-up, two of the more fearless aliens got in a pod and used their anti-anti-gravity engine to cruise into Earth orbit. Reformatting the ship exterior to resemble a harmless asteroid, they sifted through the city database, trying to find the optimum place to panhandle.
Nairobi was fine, but on closer inspection, the people were a bit patronising
Moscow performed better in winter
Taipei contained too much neon
Caracas had eradicated homelessness
As had a dozen other cities
Cairo was too-
Open-minded citizens, streams of beggars, solidarity chat, rampant adventurism, white on white crime, street rap, churches with gardens, no clearly-defined downtown area
Yes, yes, yes, yes
That was exactly the kind of unpredictability they were looking for.
Picking out a column under the lethargic ruin of the Santa Monica Pier, the two trespassers put blankets over their tentacles, tested their mechanical hands, made sure the cup was secure in the sand then waited.
After forty-five minutes their first customer arrived; a man of odd proportions, muscular, torso like a washing machine, head the size of a peanut, eyes somehow getting shine out of the colour grey. He pointed at the outgoing tide and asked if they wanted to be in a movie.
Using their translators, they said ‘sure’ then quickly added ‘what’s in it for me?’
‘Exposure,’ said the man.
‘The paying public. Now all you have to do is sit here and stare forward.’ He handed them a bottle with a label they couldn’t read. ‘When the woman runs past…the one dressed like a superhero stripper, over there, see her? Yeah, that one. When she scoots past, I want you both to look at your bottles and squint…like you can’t believe what you’ve just seen and maybe it’s the booze…okay?’
The aliens raised their heads [in effect, their masks] and then slowly, deliberately lowered them down to their chests [not actually chests, more like mounds].
‘Was that nodding?’ asked the man, confused.
‘We will do your scene. But first…’ One of the aliens pointed to the cup in the sand. ‘…a small kindness.’
The man looked at the cup as if it were a Mayakovsky doll, pulled out his pockets and said, ‘sorry, no coins, next time for sure.’
The aliens watched him return to the camera crew, who appeared to have emerged from the sand itself, and moved their masks from side to distant side.
‘What was that word humans use…’
‘No, the other one…begins with mother…’
‘Yes. That man is a mothership.’
After doing their scene fourteen times, and being scolded twice for ‘incongruous theatrics’, the superhero stripper came over and dropped a heart-shaped piece of paper in their cup.
‘Is that money?’ they asked.
‘Of course not, that would be a handout, the worst possible thing anyone could do to you people.’
‘That…’ she pointed to the cup, ‘…is a note I wrote, with my own hand.’
‘It seems typed.’
‘Obviously…I’m not a monk.’
‘What does it say?’ asked the other alien, leaning across as much as they could without dislodging their mask.
‘Wait…running it through the translator…’ The alien straightened out the paper, making a shrill noise as it prepared to speak. ‘Okay, here it is.’
‘Don’t feel blue, there’s nothing you can do, except work hard and believe in you.’
‘Wah, what language are you speaking?’ asked the actress, frowning.
‘An obscure one.’
‘Sounds like my maid scrubbing the windows…but it’s fine…as long as you don’t overdo it.’
‘There is a limit or-…’
‘Wah, dialogue time. I gotta go. Enjoy the rest of the day and remember…I see you, I feel for you. Bye.’
The aliens watched her catch up to the camera crew, their heads too tired to move.
‘Kant,’ one of them muttered.
The rest of the afternoon passed relatively smoothly, as did the night, as did the next day, as did the next week and when eleven days were done they decided to pack up and call it a test.
Flipping their cup upside down, they watched as a single coin dropped on the sand.
It wasn’t that bad
If you counted the total given during the eleven days
The problem was
Each night a man would come, hair sprouting out from all possible parts of his head, like an ammonia storm within the atmosphere of Neptune, and he would empty the coins from their cups and tell them it was an honour [presumably for them, though he never clarified], he was in movies before, 49 hours or something, and it was an honour, an incredible honour to pay for his heroin habit in the old way, with the queen’s mint.
Understanding little, and unwilling to murder a fellow life-form, they did one of their rehearsed nods and waited for him to hobble off.
The tenth night, the one just passed, he’d taken one of the cups too, but left a coin as a reward for their unparalleled diligence.
His departing line: ‘one day, Eddie. Next day, glue.’
Teleporting back to their pod, the aliens reverted to their natural forms and broke orbit. It was tempting to stick around, type out the data and mail it, but the other observers were expecting them and it was one of their few remaining traditions, to perform their field reports live.
Orbiting Eris, the observers added the homeless report [well-acted, theatrical] to their existing data and decided that LA was out of the question.
As were most other cities.
So they discussed the matter a little more, stretched out their tentacles, threw communication devices at each other, got to a bad place and decided to cool off in the helium pools.
Post-soak, it was back to the research.
Politics and movie lore.
After studying reels and reels and reels and reels and reels and reels of 50’s TV commercials and election debates and ‘I gave $20 to a homeless man, watch his reaction’ videos and 80’s revenge flicks and the Predator franchise, after analysing covert intel on guerrillas who graduated to successful military coups with help from American friends, after comparing what the communists said to what they did, what the capitalists promised to what they dished out, how often the crew of the Enterprise talked to the aliens against how often they phasered them to bits, how put upon Danny Glover looked in Predator 2, the aliens finally managed to narrow their list down to six countries:
None of the candidate locations was perfect, all had their idiosyncrasies [in some cases, pure lunacy] but after staring at a photo of the Northern Lights and visualising the Cysterian Nebula back home, they decided on Iceland.
The people first, then the Government.
Unfortunately, just as the cylindrical pod was being flaxed for departure, the Nabians appeared and said, ‘not yet, they’re too erratic.’
‘We know, but we’re going to Icela-…’
‘Focus on the portals first. Come back and do language exchanges later.’
Leaving two of the more sociopathic of their kind to monitor general Kuiper-Oort activity, the aliens packed up their tech and their helium pools and their Icelandic porn scenarios and followed the Nabians’ ion trail back to the Helix Nebula.
The humans, meanwhile, continued to not know any of this
Mostly due to primitive scanners
And the strange idea that aliens wouldn’t mask their power output.