Comedown (a short short story)

Millions of us watched, eyes glued to the nearest television.  At school, at play, at work.  Everywhere.   We held our breath. 

“Coming down nicely…  Picking up some dust…”

They had less than 30 seconds of fuel left.

“Houston, Tranquility Base here.  The Eagle has landed.”

The Eagle has landed!  We did it!  We landed on the Moon!  People cheered!

Then we saw Neil Armstrong going down the stairs.  And then those words, for all the world to hear, and remember, forever. 

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

And then Buzz Aldrin bounded  in slow motion across the surface.  The surface of the Moon!

 They took samples of the dust, collected some rocks, drilled for core samples.  And planted the flag.  The American flag.  There on the Moon.

 

It was such a—comedown.  All those years, SETI watching so closely, so persistently, people everywhere excited every time they thought they saw a UFO, and then this.

A surprise visit.

No one saw it coming.

Suddenly there was this small ship out there, heading our way.  Well, not our way.  It looked like it was going to land in the States.  Washington, probably.

So everyone scrambled to meet it.  The President, of course, with lots of security.  Men with guns.  And some sort of first contact team.  A linguist?  An anthropologist?  A biologist?  Robert J. Sawyer?  Of course not.  More men with guns.

And press.  Lots of press.  And aides pushing last minute speech revisions at the President.

And people.  My god, Americans like to crowd.  If Woodstock had 500,000 people, there must have been ten times that there in Washington.  Five million people.  Waiting.  For what?

Well, that was the question, wasn’t it.

 

Every time people watched the now-famous footage, they stopped talking when the flag was planted.  It was a sacred moment.  They’d stand and put their hands over their hearts.  If someone didn’t, well…

“Hey, aren’t you proud to be an American?”

“I guess.”  An awkward silence.  “I’m glad to be an American, sure, but—”

“Well, stand up then.  Show some respect.  That’s our flag.” 

 

The ship landed neatly.  Uneventfully.  After a while, the door opened.  A ramp unfolded.  It was just like all the sci-fi novels said it would be.

A figure appeared.  Humanoid.  It looked out at all the people, then focused on the ones nearest to him.  All of whom were just staring.  Stunned, I suspect.

“This is yours, yeah?”  It did something to the clipboard thing it was holding and the American flag wavered in the air, projected as a hologram or something.  “I’m in the right place?”

The President took a step forward then, and launched into his speech, in the  stentorian voice that got him elected.

“We greet you, we welcome you, to this great nation, the United States of America.  A nation of which we’re proud—”

“No—”

“A nation strong and—”

“Well, that’s all very good, but—”

“And free—”

“No, you’ve got it wrong, I’m—”

 

National pride, my ass.   That’s what the American public was supposed to think.  Either that or that it was a victory thing.   They were competing with the Russians, and they won.         

But every government in the world knew otherwise.   It was a claim to ownership, pure and simple.  This was the U.S., remember?  Capitalism? the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of profit?  It was like in Far and Away, that movie with Nicole Kidman, when the pioneers raced across the land trying to be the first to get to the section they wanted so they could put a stake in it, so they could claim it as theirs.  It was like during the gold rush, when miners would stake a claim wherever there was something promising, just in case. 

 

“I’m Collections.”

“And—”  The President stopped speaking.

“You’re in arrears?”  It consulted its clipboard.  “Fifty years, actually.  Comes to—oh my—967.3 trillion.”  It looked at all the blank faces.

“U. S. dollars,” it added helpfully.

They still didn’t get it.

It tried again.  “Property taxes?”

In the long and awkward silence that followed, one of the aides suggested that they retire to the Oval Office.  Or the nearest Tim Horton’s.  Well, actually, they don’t have Tim Hortons in the States, but you know what I mean.  Somewhere where the world couldn’t watch whatever was about to happen.  Because, the aide correctly surmised, it wasn’t going to be pretty.  Let alone glorious.

“Sorry, but no thanks,” the Collections Agent said to the invitation, “I’m on a schedule.  So—how would you like to pay?”

“Um, ah, we don’t have that kind of money,” the President stammered.  Unpresidentially.

“Oh, well, then, we’ll just garnish your…” it tapped away on its clipboard, “loan repayments.”

“Excellent,” the Finance Minister stepped forward.  “I’m sure you’ll find that will cover the amount in full.”

The agent tapped on his clipboard … then tapped some more…

“Actually,” it seemed to be scanning a long list, “none of your creditors appear able to pay in full.  Not the way you’ve calculated their interest.”  It looked up then.  “I’ll just collect the principals and consider the loans paid in full,” it said cheerfully.

The Finance Minister fainted.

“There are 500 American billionaires,” someone called out.  With uncertain pride.   “If each of those donated a billion dollars…”

“You’d still be short,” it called back.  “By 966.8 trillion,” it added.  Helpfully.

Again, silence.

“What about your natural resources?” it asked.

“What do you mean?” the President said.  Stupidly.

The agent had resumed tapping.  “No, I can see you…you’re getting your water from Canada?  But—  You used what you had to fill swimming pools in California instead of irrigating crops—food crops—in the Midwest?  Why would you do that?”  It looked up, genuinely puzzled.

Awkward silence.

“And you haven’t figured out how to desalinate?”  It was amazed.

“Actually, sir, m’am, your—” the Science Advisor stepped forward, eager to correct the bad impression that was clearly being made, “we have.”

“And you’re not doing it because…?”

The Science Advisor stepped back.  Quickly.

It consulted its clipboard again, then looked up in disbelief.  “And you’ve already used up all your oil—in just—” it did the math, “ten seconds?”

Embarrassed silence.  Almost, but not quite, guilty silence.

“And you haven’t figured out sun panels?  Not even windmills and watermills?  How the hell did you get to the moon?”

The Science Advisor muttered to himself.  Then left.  Just walked away.

“Look,” the Agent sighed, “I’ll give you a twenty-four hour grace period to come up with a plan for repayment.”  It retreated to its ship for a much needed drink.

The next day, a group of Nobel Laureates presented a carefully prepared plan.  They were willing to engage in a one-way exchange program, to share their knowledge, as payment.

It was a heroic thing to do.  Very patriotic.  The President promised huge rewards upon their return.  But they didn’t do it because it was heroic or patriotic.  They were trying to redeem humanity in the eyes of the alien.

When the Agent told them they’d be perfect for their teaching their six-year-olds, they beat a hasty retreat.

As a last resort, the President offered their weaponry.  Really, what else did they have?  Inventory after inventory was solemnly passed to the Agent.  The pile in its (two) arms grew.  And grew.

“What, have you guys been spending all your allowance on guns?” it quipped.

Yet another awkward silence.  To which it raised his eyebrows.

And it was clear, at least to the only woman on the President’s staff, that the meaning of raised eyebrows was multiversal.

Finally, with considerable ceremony and much-to-do, the President offered the last inventory: one hundred state-of-the-art next-generation brilliant bombs.

“I think you’ll find that covers it,” he said.  Weakly.

It opened the folder and flipped through the specs.

“’Fraid not,” it said.  “The museums won’t pay that much for these.”

“Museums?” he said, then clutched at his heart.

“Hey!” it had an idea.  “We could turn you into a tourist destination.  Sort of a Disney theme park for our kids.”

“Yes, we can do that!” the Vice-President had stepped up.  Over the President’s body.  “We have lots of Disney theme parks!  We can add more!  How many more would you like?”

“No, I meant—you’d be the entertainment.  Just as you are.”

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