It was a clear day over North America.
The President of the United States stared down at his country and felt despair. He’d felt little else since the first message had intruded its way into the United States Secure Communications Network, a network that hundreds of experts had claimed to be completely secure. The message had reached him and four of his peers, inviting them to come to a remote location and meet with representatives from another world. He’d decided to go, even though the Secret Service had been horrified at the thought. The President of the United States would be going alone into the alien landing craft and flying to orbit.
He closed his eyes, trying to block out the sight. Earth was beautiful from orbit, a blue-green globe; if he stared, he fancied that he could make out the New Jersey coastline. And yet it seemed so vulnerable, a vulnerability that their host had demonstrated by his mere presence. The alien craft – one of their freighters, apparently – had remained undetected until its owner had chosen to make his presence known. It spoke volumes about humanity’s vulnerability to an alien threat.
“My civilisation is in decline,” their host had said. He’d called himself Mentor, which suggested to the President – a keen science-fiction reader in his teens – that the aliens had spent literally years studying Earth. The thought of alien anthropologists watching humanity was horrifying – God alone knew what the aliens had made of humanity’s inhumanity to its own kind – but if their host was to be believed, there were people out among the stars with less friendly motives. “The barbarians are at the gates. Your people do not have long to prepare.”
The President, away from the network of analysts and briefers who prepared him for diplomatic meetings on Earth, wasn’t sure that he had followed the explanation. Their host, who looked rather like a humanoid canary, complete with feathers, had apparently broken the rules of his own society by coming to Earth. He’d offered humanity technology that would solve many of Earth’s problems, if they had time to put it into production. And if they didn’t, he’d warned, Earth was in the way of at least one expanding civilisation. The kindest outcome would be humanity being locked out of space forever. He didn’t want to think about the other possibilities.
He looked over at his counterparts, the leaders of Britain, France, Russia and China. They shared the same stunned expression he knew dominated his own face. A week ago, they’d been confident that they knew their place in the world; now, the entire universe had turned upside down. There was a deadly threat out there and they had to prepare, but none of them really trusted the others, not when there was so much at stake. The nation that first put the alien technology to use would have an unbeatable advantage. For all of the idealism the President allowed himself in the privacy of his own thoughts, he knew that the idea of toppling the United States from the position of global superpower would be very attractive to his peers.
And as long as we’re scrabbling like children who have been thrown a handful of dollars, he thought sourly, the millionaires will draw their plans against us.
He cleared his throat. “I think that we have to face facts,” he said. But in truth he didn’t know what the facts really were. Was their alien friend telling the truth? There was no independent verification of everything he’d said. The President had looked into Roswell and other reported UFO contact when he’d taken office, but the Air Force had assured him that the stories were nothing, but fabrications. Earth’s first contact with alien life was standing right in front of him. “Our petty conflicts mean nothing in the face of what is bearing down on us.”
There was no argument. A different issue, less momentous, would have caused bitter – if polite – scrabbling. “We have to make use of this gift,” the President continued. Mentor had demanded nothing in return, but the President was too experienced a politician to take that at face value. “We have to prepare for more formal contact.”
Years ago, he recalled from a history briefing he’d had before a diplomatic trip abroad, an American officer called Commodore Perry had forced the isolated state of Japan to open up and establish unequal treaties with the West. The British and other Europeans had done the same to China, but where the Japanese had managed to defend themselves and stave off Western aggression – and indulged some aggression of their own – the Chinese had never managed to adapt before they were overwhelmed. And the Native Americans had never stood a chance. The political and military disparity had simply been insurmountable.
“You have ten of your years at most,” Mentor informed the small group. “By then, Earth will certainly be noticed by the expanding powers. If you cannot defend yourselves by then, you will be lost.”
“Well,” the President said, finally. “It’s time to begin.”