What to Believe
by Thomas J. Keller
Part 1 and Part 2|
in issue 260.
|part 3 of 4|
“Before we go there, Farley, I have to ask you to sign this confidentiality agreement.” Iafrate handed him a three-page document.
Doggett glanced at it and said, “That’s why I have lawyers.” He pushed it back across the desk.
Iafrate took it and stood. “Nice talking with you, Farley. I don’t have that kind of time; Katie’ll do it.”
Farley snatched the pages back, scanned them, and scribbled his signature. Iafrate put the pages into an envelope, sat down and said, “We wanted some kind of global balance; we already have the major players from Asia, Europe and North America.” He slid a paper across the desk to Doggett. “Here they are.”
Doggett scanned it. “Impressive; the top companies in the world.”
Iafrate retrieved the paper. “Thanks to the bidding, it turns out that each of the ten is paying about $120 million each. The Koreans and Germans and the French are miffed that they were shut out.”
“What’s to stop the losers from spilling the beans?”
Iafrate nonchalantly scratched his cheek. “An ironclad confidentiality agreement. And we told them they could be secondary advertisers to our sponsors on the programs GNN airs on the days before and after the event.”
As Iafrate spoke Doggett observed the flesh on his throat wobbling. In a period of five days or so, Doggett reckoned, they could net a year’s income for the whole network. And if he took his percentage... He thumbed his intercom. “Nick, could you come in here?”
Doggett quickly briefed Gallatin on Iafrate’s proposal.
“How do you know the aliens are for real?” said Gallatin.
“I don’t,” said Iafrate. Then, with all the bluster and sweet-talk ingrained in him since his days in the schoolyard, he added, “But no one has proved they aren’t.”
Gallatin shot a warning glance at Doggett and said, “What if, as everyone thinks, they don’t come?”
Iafrate threw up his hands. “Then it’s an Evel Knievel Snake Mountain deal. We’ll still have the audience and Farley can denounce everything.” He lowered his voice to a confidential aside, “Don’t bet the ranch that they won’t appear.”
“It’s one thing to line up sponsors when they think you have the inside track,” said Gallatin in an even tone. “Now tell me how you’re going to bring it off.”
“Farley’s the interviewer,” said Iafrate. “The ratings should go off the charts. I presume GNN will provide the worldwide feed?”
“Yes,” Doggett said, before Gallatin could reply. His ambition and competitive fire were fully rekindled. If this is for real, it’s immortality, he thought. “What’s our best guess as to where they might land?”
Iafrate noted the ‘our’. Good, Doggett’s with us. “We’re not sure.”
For the next hour they went back and forth ironing out details. Gallatin looked at his watch. “Dom, we have to end this now; we have Farley’s newscast to get on the air.” Nick rose.
“I’ll talk to Steigman and brief him,” said Doggett. Mike Steigman was the President and CEO of GNN. He put his arm on Iafrate’s ample shoulder as he ushered him from the office. “We should meet tomorrow.”
Watching Iafrate enter the elevator, Gallatin said, “You know, Farley, this is a high risk roll of the dice for him.”
Doggett shrugged. He saw little downside for himself. “As Dom said to us, if it gets ugly we go to the first rule of survival: act outraged and denounce.”
* * *
“Doggett’s on board; we have a go,” Iafrate said that afternoon to his assembled staff.
“I still think it’s some kind of scam,” said Schwartzman. “It’s getting close to crunch time so someone is going to have to put up or shut up.”
“Speaking of that,” said Iafrate, “anything new on Plan B, Angela?”
“We tried to figure where aliens might land and we narrowed the location to six places,” she said. She clicked her computer and six bulleted names appeared on the wall screen. “As you can see, they’re all remote, away from population centers. We can operate without being noticed.”
She glanced at her notes. “We have crews shooting exteriors at each site and the special effects people are almost finished. We just plug Doggett into a chair with a table in front of him. Our alien can sit, or perch if we want, across from him ready to go live with an interview for the centuries.”
“Where do the ads go?” said Schwartzman.
“We use the space between Doggett and the alien to subliminally flash sponsor messages on a rotating basis. It’s a version of what they do at baseball games where they digitally create an ad on the backstop wall behind the catcher.”
“What about the script?” Iafrate’s voice betrayed his tension.
Angela mockingly said, “You don’t think the aliens will show up?”
“Well, just in case, we’ve contracted with a range of people in dozens of disciplines to submit questions and answers. We want this alien interview, whether real or our version, to be a story. It’s all in here.” She slid a binder across the table to him.
She pointed to her copy. “Welcome to the twenty-first century: alien landings brought to us by sponsored entities and defined by the Farley Doggetts of the world.”
Iafrate, an annoyed frown on his face, pushed the binder aside and said, “That’s memory lane stuff, Hansel and Gretel, Green Fairy Book, phony legends and other exaggerations. The important thing is: do we know how we want our aliens to look? Angela?”
“We can make them,” she said, “hominid, avian, angelic, something hideous or just a jumble of visible electrons. I recommend the latter. It says that the aliens are the next plane of existence; no matter, just mind. Some of the current thinking in quantum physics validates that tactic. We’ll remote-pipe a voice in English, with simultaneous translations into Spanish, Chinese and Hindi.”
“Then we go with that; kind of reinforces the mind over matter motif we’re talking about here,” said Iafrate.
Schwartzman stood and began pacing behind his chair. “How do we make people believe that our aliens are the ones who spoke from space? Who provides the imprimatur, the air cover, the legitimizing face?”
“Early this morning I had a private meeting with Mike Steigman on that very subject,” said Iafrate. “Doggett wasn’t there; we want to keep him pure and unbiased. Steigman, knowing he had our money in his pocket, made the U.N. a pre-emptive offer for the worldwide rights.”
“And?” Angela leaned forward.
“They took it,” Iafrate said. “Our sponsors and the world will get an alien message one way or the other, right, Angela?”
“You bet,” she said. “My hackers and programmers can bypass any security system on the planet. Dom, you and I need to discuss whether we send a pre-emptive message to, say, the U.N. and indeed get the ball rolling.”
“Control the agenda, you mean?”
“Being proactive cuts down on the logistics.” Her expression seemed feral. “We can strike a blow against superstitious nonsense and get people focused on the world’s real problems,” she gave a self conscious laugh, “like enough Big Macs for everyone. If there are aliens, they can follow us.”
* * *
Three days later Doggett and GNN president Mike Steigman stood in the office of United Nations Secretary General Abu Khitza. After a minute’s courtesies, Khitza said, “We have received a new message from the alien entities. They gave us a time and a location for their appearance. Mr. Doggett, we would like you to conduct the interview. We shall provide a list of questions that our members would like asked.”
“Thank you,” said Doggett. “Will the aliens arrive in some kind of spacecraft?”
“They did not say, Mr. Doggett,” said Khitza. “Where?” Steigman wrote furiously.
“The Namib Desert,” said Khitza. “The aliens gave us specific coordinates. It is a barren place; there is no human life within 100 kilometers. They also gave a precise time: 6 pm, local time. We contacted the Namibians and the South Africans and asked that they embargo the area for the next two weeks. Inhospitable conditions, but we’ll be assured of privacy.”
“If I remember correctly the Namib desert is the oldest one on Earth,” said Doggett. “The most ancient human remains ever found, hundreds of thousands of years old, have been uncovered there. Did the aliens give any indication of why they selected that place?”
“No, they did not,” Khitza said. He smiled gently, “One can only presume that they don’t like crowds.”
* * *
Outside the temperature was 120F; inside, the air conditioners struggled to create some degree of comfort. Doggett, in his GNN blazer, sat at a round ebony table on a raised platform inside a large hastily assembled pre-fabricated structure in the remotest part of the Namib Desert. To his right a single remotely operated camera centered in front of the table focused on him.
The U.N. announcement of the alien arrival date and GNN’s exclusive made GNN the most-watched network on the planet. Competing news organizations howled in outrage at the coup while each of them tried, and failed, to wrest the exclusive away.
Twenty hand-picked U.N. security people carefully watched them. The technical people operated their control boards on the other side of the platform behind another reinforced shield.
Dom Iafrate, Angela Toohey, Mike Steigman and representatives from the sixty largest nations and the ten elated sponsors sat behind a reinforced polycarbonate shield. The sponsors had set up large, air-conditioned customer hospitality tents at the one-kilometer security perimeter.
After a five-minute commercial break, Farley did a two-minute set-up and sat mute. Slowly the camera panned to the other side of the table. As it focused on the empty space, a disturbance filled the air, visible like coalescing electrons, with more substance than motes but with less form than flesh.
The hairs on the back of Doggett’s neck rose. For the first time in his career, and with a majority of the world’s population watching or listening, he felt the creeping tendrils of fear. The shape of the disturbance appeared ovoid, about two meters high and a meter wide.
He had his first question ready. “Who are you?”
There was ten seconds of absolute silence. The electrons shimmered before Farley as the alien spoke, “You may call us the Visitors.” The voice sounded artificial. The words were spoken slowly and deliberately, the equivalent of first, faltering footsteps.
“Do you have a name?”
There was another ten second pause. “We have no sense of individual identity in the way that you mean.” Before Doggett could ask another question the alien said, “You may address me as Speaker.”
Doggett glanced at his notes. He needed to ask several opening questions to get the ball rolling. “Where do you come from, Speaker?”
“We exist in the center of the galaxy.”
“What are you? Is what I am seeing the way you really are or is it a manifestation meant to disguise your true nature?”
“We are what you see,” said Speaker. “We gave up our corporeal form eons ago.”
“Did you at one time resemble us?”
“No,” said Speaker.
No amplification; Doggett again checked his notes. “Is there other life in the galaxy?”
“That is for you to discover if you ever go out from this planet.”
Doggett observed the shortening of the pauses between questions and answers. He also noted the phrasing of the answer. “Why have you come here?”
Speaker’s intensity grew, and then dimmed slightly. “To speak to the peoples of this world. By speaking through you to all on this planet, we can directly express our concerns.”
I’m not ready to go down that path yet, Doggett thought. A sudden hunch, the kind that had made him so successful, caused him to ask, “Have the Visitors journeyed to this world before?”
“Yes,” Speaker said.
The adrenaline surge was heady. “When did you come?”
Silence. The pause lengthened until, finally, “We cannot say.”
Doggett jumped. “Cannot or will not?”
Doggett could feel the tension as once again Speaker’s aura brightened. As it dimmed, Speaker said, “Your species was... different...”
Doggett recognized that what Speaker had divulged would spur ten thousand books, two thousand cults, fifty thousand dissertations and untold archaeological digs. I’ll come back to that later. “Does the name you call yourselves, Visitors, have any significance?”
“Names can have many meanings,” said Speaker. “Like any word evaluated for its implication by several different individuals, there can be as many interpretations. Names are ephemeral; they can be what you want them to be.”
He may be an alien, Doggett thought, but that was a politician’s answer, saying a lot while saying nothing. “Speaker, did your selection of this location, what we call the Namib Desert, have any significance?”
Again there was a brief delay. “Yes.”
“Why?” Doggett guessed that when Speaker’s brightness grew he consulted with the mothership or wherever the rest of them were.
“This place is where we were in our time here,” said Speaker. “Your world was not the same as it is now.”
Another insight made him ask, “Why did you leave?”
The aura grew blazingly bright. Finally Speaker said, “We could not stay. We altered what we should not have. That action has caused us to now return...”
Do I ask the logical follow up? Doggett understood the possibly volatile consequences. What was truth? Never ask a question that you don’t know the answer to, went the old lawyer’s axiom. It was the classic relationship of news to reality as opposed to the relationship of news to point of view; the Rashomon Principle: the viewpoints and cultural prisms brought to a story as observed by different people. He plunged ahead. “What did you alter, Speaker?”
This time the answer was immediate, as if a decision had been made. “Two of the predecessors to what you are now.”
“What did you do?”
“We gave them the ability to reason and to think.”
Doggett’s stomach flipped. In his mind countless interviews with the world’s religious leaders repeated themselves. He thought of the televangelists who’d hopped on this gravy train. In their way, they had been right; so had many others. His own long-suppressed Catholic boyhood flashed before him. What had Speaker called him, myth-maker? Myth breaker or riot starter might be the more accurate term. “What caused you to leave?”
“The two whom we changed began to worship us,” said Speaker. “We had not realized it, but worship, that type of concentrated thought, can cause us pain. Just the two of them caused us discomfort. Rather than undo our actions, we left your world.”
“Why have you returned?”
“You still worship. Worship knows no space-time limitations. Your worship is undirected and unfocused, sometimes prayer and sometimes desire. Worship has evolved so that sometimes it is hate and sometimes anger and sometimes other things. All of this floods outward from your world in surge after surge, magnified by your billions of people. For what we gave you we suffer. Most worship from Earth is not spiritual but selfish, often violent in its intent, wanting someone else to be destroyed in some higher power’s name. Zeal causes us pain. We need to make it stop.”
“What would you do?”
“Unless your species does something about this, we will return you to what you were.” The neutral, synthetic voice made the remarks all the more chilling.
Do I ask how? Maybe later. “How can we prevent this from happening?”
Copyright © 2007 by Thomas J. Keller