What to Believe

by Thomas J. Keller

Part 2 appears
in this issue.
part 1 of 4

“Now, the Evening News with Farley Doggett.” The camera went tight on the world-weary face.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Just hours ago global communications skidded to a three minute halt and a message, allegedly from an off-world location, advised that we stop,” Doggett raised his left eyebrow slightly, “worship...”

In a bemused tone he added, “It also said that we should expect company in,” again he raised his eyebrow, “forty days. We have gathered a panel of experts to discuss this matter...”

* * *

“You hear him? Farley Doggett, the voice of believability; but trust me, he thinks it’s a hoax.” Nick Gallatin, Doggett’s executive producer, sat in his office speaking on the phone to his friend and ex-boss, Pawky Enoch, “I mean, come on, this disembodied so-called outer space voice declares, in effect, ‘Hey, we’re on the way and cut out worship’ in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Hindi.”

Pawky glanced at the TV on his desk. “Who are these experts you rounded up for Doggett?”

“No one you’d deal with. They’re the TV techno-gentry,” said Gallatin, “with ‘For Rent’ signs on their foreheads. They’ll mix the true and false, make it plausible and explain whatever Doggett wants them to. In sound bites of course. What about you? Any new clients the Blather Group is overcharging these days?”

Pawky watched an overweight secretary waddle down the hall outside his office. “Savoir Dupois, that retro French restaurant chain that specializes in heavy cream sauces and large servings.”

Gallatin sniggered, “Keep stuffing them, Pawky. I’m green with envy. This whole alien thing could get really interesting; I’ll keep you posted.” He hung up as the Evening News went to commercials.

* * *

In a mundane office in a medium-size Midwestern city, an ordinary-looking man in his mid-sixties clicked off the television and punched a number into his phone. As he waited he felt thirsty. He concentrated.

“Well, Clark,” the harsh voice rasped at the other end of the line, “it’s been quite a day, hasn’t it?”

“Yes, Bret, it has,” Clark said. He spoke in the slow rhythms of his native Mississippi. “Quite a day indeed. Do you really think aliens caused what happened this afternoon? Are we in danger?”

An assistant came in with a can of diet Coke. He stood, fussing. Clark frowned. The assistant blinked several times and immediately left.

“The broadcast message had no logic,” said Bret. “The one puzzle is that this took place without us knowing beforehand.”

“What if these aliens are real?” Clark’s face tightened. “We are so few. Have our people check to see who would benefit from this and meet in New York in five days.”

“Good idea. I’ll set it up,” said Bret. “I am less worried about make-believe aliens. The threat to us is not from this massive deception but from the advance of technology.”

* * *

“OK, Nick, what’ve we got so far?” Farley Doggett sat with Nick Gallatin in Ben Benson’s New York steak house, just steps from the GNN offices. The hustle and bustle of gossiping New York swirled around them, ears at the ready for the slightest tidbit.

“There’s no consensus yet,” Gallatin put his menu aside. “But, in the opinion of a surprising number of experts, the message did not come from Earth.”

“Do they know where it originated?” Farley sipped his Perrier.

Gallatin said, “I’m told the government believes it knows the general direction of the transmission. However, finding the exact spot in a diverging cone-shaped volume, with Earth as the tip, is impossible as the message seemingly originated from a distance of many light-years.”

Farley waved to an acquaintance and turned his attention back to Gallatin. “Any naysayers to this theory?”

“Of course,” said Gallatin. “Direction is one of the easier parameters to resolve, particularly at the higher frequencies. But there are those who say that someone could have used Very Low Frequency communications similar to those used by submerged submarines and have it somehow re-transmitted on the public broadcast bands. That could cause some interception and source detection headaches.” Gallatin sipped his water. “This is, of course, why submarines use VLF communications.”

“So as usual we have no unanimity of opinion. What about the rest of the world?”

“Most governments have been silent except the French,” said Gallatin. “The French doubt the aliens are real because they did not speak French. The U.N. is silent because they don’t want to offend any of the member states. But don’t for a second think that the U.N. doesn’t want to control this.”

* * *

Dominic Iafrate, owner of Iafrate and Partners, the fastest growing ad and PR agency in New York, had listened to the alien message and had sat, stunned. What’s going on here, some kind of stunt? He quickly concluded that real or not this was a big opportunity if he could figure an angle.

The Brooklyn-bred Iafrate was ruthless, smart, a hundred pounds overweight, triple-chinned and addicted to good times. He reveled in creating a larger than life persona for himself and his firm. In his most famous stunt, he’d proposed a tag line for a well-known German multinational, “From those wonderful folks who helped bring you Dachau.” His leak of the incident brought enormous publicity and notoriety to him and to his agency.

The agency’s Creative Director, Angela Toohey, had burst onto the New York ad scene with Pawky Enoch and the Blather Group. Within two years Iafrate had hired her. Tall and thin, she had one of the most expressionless faces Iafrate had ever seen.

“So, what’s your take on these aliens?” Iafrate stood in the doorway of her large, spare office. “I think there’s something in it for us.”

“It’s probably a scam,” said Angela, motioning him to enter. “However, suppose they’re real, just not so all mighty?”

“What do you mean?” He sat at Angela’s worktable.

“Just that,” she said. “Think about it. Would any rational beings send that kind of convoluted message to stop worshipping? Everyone assumed religion, but what about the worship of money? Or power? Or sex? Or,” she glanced at Iafrate, “fatty foods? These aliens might be head cases. You know, seriously disturbed interstellar entities.” She twirled a pencil and looked at him with her expressionless face.

Iafrate’s chins heaved as he said, “Maybe they’re sensitive to human emotion and this is their limited way of saying that.”

Angela laughed harshly. “And maybe they’re whining. Whoever sent that message used an emotion-weight word like worship and set off a storm by using it didn’t they?”

Iafrate nodded. “Yeah.”

“And we’re told they’re on their way.” She stood and walked over to him. “You’re right about one thing: the opportunity. It’s Thursday. Why don’t you spend a long weekend and think about it? Certainly your fertile brain can find some devious money-making way to exploit this.”

Iafrate rubbed the back of his shaved head. “You’re right. I’ll see you Monday.” Within the hour he left for his house in the Hamptons.

* * *

For the next few days the alien message provided the lead stories on the cable channels and in all of the major newspapers. Hypotheses, suppositions and analyses filled the airwaves and overflowed the pages.

Attendance at centers of worship and religious services rose dramatically. Televangelists took to the airwaves preaching doom, salvation and everything in between. And please send your donation.

Nick Gallatin, feeling these developments were significant, had Farley lead a discussion of the religious revival and the rise of alien-inspired spiritual groups on his Sunday morning show. He reported all this to Pawky Enoch.

* * *

At the Blather Group, Pawky watched with a grudging admiration at the speed and opportunism that so swiftly manifested itself. Once more, he marveled at the motivational incentive, given the proper trappings, of fear-induced faith.

* * *

At his house in Montauk, Iafrate, looking for creative inspiration and profit potential, carefully observed this phenomenon while monitoring the news reports and listening to the pundits and experts.

* * *

Clark chose to concentrate on self-preservation. He stood before a small group of men and women sitting at a highly polished mahogany table in a teak-paneled midtown Manhattan conference room, “Let us speak instead of our way. First, are these aliens real?”

“The pundits and the chattering classes want the conclusion that it’s a con job and look for a rationale,” said Clive, a British editorial consultant. With his slight build, wispy beard and John Lennon glasses he was the prototype of the bookish dilettante.

“Can you present such a rationale?”

“Yes,” said Clive. “If you look at this like a story, there is a problem.” He raised a finger. “The aliens announce their presence and when they’ll arrive.” He raised a second finger. “They say worship hurts them.” He raised a third finger. “They say they want us to stop.” He lowered his hand and shook his head slowly, “In a sane world, that logic wouldn’t pass in elementary school.”

Anna, an advisor to the German government, her lipstick matching the soul-dead black of her outfit, said, “Perhaps, but every significant scientist in Europe, America and Asia is being consulted on whether thought has force, on wave theory, on interstellar travel and on the feasibility of pure energy beings.”

Donna, a university president, her short blond hair with a purity of tint that only the best money could buy, turned to Anna and said, “Is there a belief or gullibility gene? Every conceivable group jumped on the alien bandwagon in pursuit of its own agenda. What they call worship shares the emotion scale with love and hate and their other petty feelings. Let’s not ignore the real threat to us: the advance of technology.”

Bret’s eyes bulged as he said, “You’re right. The Human Genome Project, for example, could eventually expose all of us.”

“Regardless of where the threat comes from, we may have to seek common cause,” said Clark. “Is the peril, whether technology or alien edicts, dangerous enough for us to show who and what we are?” He looked at the dark-skinned woman to his left. “Kawma, we need an outsider viewpoint. Find someone to help us.”

She nodded.

* * *

Pawky Enoch stepped from the warm confines of his Connecticut shoreline condo into the predawn darkness. He cursed all cold weather as he shivered from a frosty pre-winter late October blast. Four quick steps and he climbed into his Hummer and started the engine.

A few days ago a woman named Kawma Suran had contacted him on behalf of an obscure but apparently very well-to-do quasi-philanthropic organization. Dismissive, he told her his agency’s minimum fee. Her answer made him pay attention: a guaranteed fee above expenses four times better than any account they had. Intrigued despite himself, he’d agreed to meet today for lunch.

Hurtling down I-95 he realized he’d been too busy to do some checking. None of his staff knew Ms. Suran. “Angela Toohey,” he said aloud. His car phone dialed.

“Angela,” he said, when she answered. “A woman named Kawma Suran, who claims to represent a very large philanthropic organization, has contacted me. Have you ever heard of her?”

She was fully awake, as he expected. “No, don’t know her. Is she fat?”

Pawky laughed. “I haven’t met her yet. I’ll let you know. Speaking of fat people, what’s new at Iafrate and Partners?”

“Iafrate’s gorging himself in the Hamptons, scheming for a way to make money from all this,” Angela said.

Pawky snorted. He then called Nick Gallatin. He didn’t know Kawma Suran either, but filled him in on the latest at GNN.

A long and sumptuous luncheon at the Four Seasons told Pawky little more about the account except that they seemed to have enormous financial resources. Kawma Suran, however, knew a lot more about him and his firm. As they left, she told him that he should expect to meet the client within the week.

* * *

When Dominic Iafrate returned to New York, he gathered his lieutenants in the agency conference room and said, “Makes no difference to me if these aliens do or don’t exist. We have ourselves the marketing opportunity of a lifetime.”

Lothar Schwartzman, the agency’s head of account management, leaned back in his chair and broke the silence. “How?”

“Simple,” said Iafrate. “We organize the alien landing and sell ten global sponsorships at $100 million dollars each. We guarantee exclusivity of category and each company gets sponsor tents at the site to entertain valued customers. It’s the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, the World Series, the Final Four, the World Cup, LeMans all rolled up into one.”

“Surely you jest,” said Schwartzman.

“No, Lothar,” Iafrate said, patiently. “You watch. No one will let anyone else take the lead. And while everyone fights and argues about what’s real we can talk to the potential sponsors. If we get the right companies, we’ll have the air cover to go to any government or the U.N. and say we’ll run the event and take all the costs.”

“Who’ll pony up $100 million apiece?” said Angela.

“The companies with the most brand investment,” said Iafrate. “We’ll give them rights to the interview once it’s aired and all materials or information the aliens might provide. Our job is to convince them to sign up for it, and if necessary use their political leverage with whomever we want to work with.”

“And to make sure everyone keeps their mouths shut until the deal is done,” said Angela. “And that includes all of us.”

Iafrate nodded. “Angela, can you come up with a name? The message said they wanted to talk to someone.”

“Farley Doggett,” she said immediately. “I know his Executive Producer. He’d be acceptable to our clients. Farley’s a well-known kind of guy, trusted, no obvious bias. OK, I know that behind his veneer of respectability and correctness he has that core of scorn for Joe and Jane Sixpack. But his ratings are starting to slide. And if he does it, GNN provides the words and pictures for the world.”

“Right,” Iafrate said. “All of you,” he looked around the room, “tell your significant others they won’t see you for the next several weeks. But after that you’ll have a lot more money to spend.”

There were nervous chuckles at the table.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2007 by Thomas J. Keller

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