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"Madam President, there's a gentleman to see you."

The American President looked up in surprise from her desk in the Oval Office: "According to my schedule, Margaret, I'm not due to be seeing anyone right now. This is my reading time for the budget discussion at eleven."

"I do appreciate that, Madam President, and I wouldn't have bothered you, but he's actually in my office now. He's very polite but very insistent that he sees you."

"And how did he get through security without an appointment, Margaret?"

"I'm sorry, Madam President, but I can't explain that. Of course, I checked and somehow it seems that he hasn't been through security. He's just appeared somehow. Shall I activate the lockdown procedure?"

"Well, Margaret, I guess it's a bit late for that. If he meant us harm, he's had the time to make that kinda obvious. This budget briefing is damn boring. I could do with a break. Show the guy in a for a few minutes. Let's see what all this is about. I'm kinda intrigued."

The President stood up from the desk and walked round to the centre of the room, taking a position in front of one of the sofas. She focused her gaze on the north-east door - one of four in the room - as she waited for her secretary to bring The Visitor through.

It was two years since Bradley Brady had selected her as his Vice-Presidential running mate, a Southern woman as a complement to a male Northerner, and five months since he had drowned in a swimming accident at Cape Cod on the first summer of his incumbency, thrusting her unexpectedly into the West Wing. Of course, this being America, since the body was never actually found there were endless conspiracies theories about Brady's demise and, to this day, she would not have been totally surprised if he had just strode back into the building.

Margaret broke her boss's brief reverie: "Madam President, your visitor ..." The secretary closed the door and the intruder - if indeed that is what he was - moved gracefully to stand before the President. She was used to sizing up people quickly but this stranger had the oddest of appearances. He was not white and not black but a blended colour. He was not Caucasian or Oriental but a melded form. He was a man but a somewhat effeminate-looking one, almost androgynous.

She sat down and indicated to The Visitor that he sit on the opposite sofa. "So", she said in a commanding tone, "who are you and what brings you to the White House?"

He hesitated before answering and then spoke in an accent that she simply could not place and in a monotone which was particularly uncharacteristic for the political discourse that normally coloured this room. "I'm afraid that you would find my name unpronounceable, Madam President, and in any event it is not important. What brings me here, however, is of the utmost importance - at least to you, if not to me."

The President leaned forward: "OK. I'm listening .."

"I am a member of a genus of what you would call extra-terrestrials - a group that in your terms would be regarded as ultra advanced. I am what we call a seeder. I travel throughout a section of the universe selecting suitable locations for developing experimental life forms. Several billion of your years ago, I seeded this planet with what evolved to be humankind. Periodically I revisit to assess progress and determine whether the experiment should continue or end."

For the first time in her political career, the President was literally and totally lost for words. She endeavoured to take in the enormity and the absurdity of what she had just been told. As unobtrusively as she could, she fingered for the panic button behind one of the cushions - just in case.

Eventually she found her voice: "You're kiddin' me, right?" In a tone of undisguised condescension, she added: "You expect me to believe that you're an alien? You look pretty human to me, mister."

The Visitor exhibited no discernible emotion but explained himself further: "I'm afraid that you would probably find my natural form somewhat disturbing. So I have adopted a human form. But I can adopt any form I wish. Observe ..."

As the President watched spellbound, the person - or thing - opposite her slowly dissolved into the appearance of an elderly Asian woman. After a few seconds of stability, the shape metamorphosised into a teenage African boy. Only seconds later, a swarthy Middle Eastern man of middle age took shape before her. And finally - most shocking of all, although she knew it could not be the case - her dead father sat just across from her, complete with his white, untrimmed moustache and that utterly endearing smile.

"OK, mister. You sure got my attention now" she declared. "But I'm gonna have to order a black coffee before I can take any more of this conversation." She moved to the intercomm in shock. Then her normal sense of politeness returned and she asked The Visitor: "Can I get you anything?"

He looked at her deadpan: "Not unless you have a stock of muon neutrinos." Then he ever so slowly smiled. She grinned back: "Let's see .. No. I guess we're right out of muon neutrinos. It's the Secretary of State, you know. He's very partial to them".

"You are funny" her guest declared in flat tones. "No", she insisted. "You're the funny one. I never expected someone from another world to have our sense of humour."

"We don't have your sense of humour" he asserted. "In fact, we don't really have a sense of humour - period - as you Americans would say. I had to learn it before coming here."

"Really? And how did you do that, I wonder."

"Oh, simple really ... I watched 'The Jon Stewart Show'. The global edition."

The rich aroma of the coffee and the familiar feel of the fabric covering on the sofa provided some reassurance to the President that, utterly surreal though this situation appeared, it was not a dream, a fantasy, an hallucination. She found herself twisting her wedding ring for further assurance.

The jokiness and the coffee calmed the President sufficiently for her to resume what had to be the oddest communication in the history of humankind. "O-K-" she inquired. "Now explain exactly why we're having this conversation."

The Visitor set out his mission in flat tones which belied the magnitude of the message: "At intervals, I revisit each of our seeding projects around my sector of the universe. I check how they're developing. Most of the life forms are not encouraging. I terminate them. Some work out better. I leave them alone or I push them along. It's time for me to evaluate our project here on what you call Earth. Strange name, considering most of the planet is covered in water."

"Well, that's humankind for you. Quixotic." responded the President. "People really are strange. For instance, I read a report once that suggested that four million Americans believe that they have been abducted by aliens. But I wouldn't dare to report this conversation to the public. They'd think I was crazy. By the way, just out of interest, do you know how many Americans have been the subject of alien abduction?"

The Visitor looked quizzical: "My best estimate would be ..."


"... none. Why would we want to extract human beings and examine various orifices? We monitor all your radio, television, telecommunications, the whole of the Internet. We have access to all your data bases. We don't need to abduct anybody and, if we did, why would we concentrate on Americans?"

"Good point. So, you know a lot about us?"

"Of course, your planet is awash with information. Data, data, everywhere. Never time to think."

"That's clever."

"Thank you."

"So, you've returned here before?" the President inquired.

"Yes, several times. The early stages of humankind looked promising."

"And your last visit?"

"That would have been around two and a half of your centuries ago. A period you subsequently called the Age of Enlightenment. Interesting time. Quite encouraging. A real emphasis on rationality and science. New interest in values and rights. John Locke, Thomas Paine, Adam Smith - those kind of thinkers. French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Indeed your own Thomas Jefferson and your own Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights."

"We've come along way since then" declared the President. "You must be proud of us."

"On the contrary" propounded The Visitor. "Since my last assessment, humankind has been a disaster. I really am minded to terminate the experiment. I just wanted to give a representative of the human race an opportunity to convince me why I shouldn't end the project now. I chose you."

"Me? Why?"

"You're the President of the United States. You're head of the only super power. You're the most powerful person on Earth."

"You've got to be jokin', mister. Me, powerful? I head a country with one of the most rigid and archaic constitutions on the planet. I can't get bills through Congress because we have legislative deadlock. I can't reduce our oil dependency because the industry controls the politicians and the electorate won't stand for a hike in gas prices. I can't even sign an effective world agreement to combat global warming."

"Enough, Madam President. So you're not all-powerful. But do you want me to remind you exactly how many aircraft, ships, tanks, military personnel, nuclear weapons you command?"

"You have all that information on your data bases?"

"No. I checked on Wikipedia."

They smiled at each other across the oval-shaped carpet.

Then The Visitor continued: "If any individual can speak for humankind, it's you, Madam President. And somebody does need to put the case for the human race because the record is devastating. Since my last visit, the death and destruction has been truly immense: the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the two Congo Wars. Plus Stalin's purges, Hitler's Holocaust, Mao's famines, Pol Pot's killing fields."

He paused for effect: "What you call the 20th century should have been the most glorious in the history of humankind. Instead it was the bloodiest by far. Do you know, Madam President, how many died from wars and famines and purges and persecutions?"

"I have a feeling that you're going to remind me."

"Almost two hundred million." He repeated the figure slowly and deliberately: "Two hundred million. That's like the American Civil War repeated over and over and over again .. more than three hundred times." He drew breath: "Now tell we why the human race deserves to continue."

The President did not immediately rush to the defence of her fellow humans. This was not an easy charge to answer. But she did her best.

"It's true that we haven't lived up to our highest ideals and that human history is not a neat continuum of progress and enlightenment. But our achievements have been immense. It's true that many have died, but many more have lived. Two hundred years ago, Thomas Malthus argued that the planet could not sustain a population much more than the billion alive at his time; yet today we have a global population of almost seven billion. Typical life expectancy used to be 30-40 years; now, in the most developed countries, it's commonly around 80 - a more than doubling."

She waited for her argument to be taken on board and then added: "Of course, life is not just about living. It's also about quality of life - we know that. We have massive inequality and we have to tackle it. But, since they began their economic reforms, the Chinese have taken around half a billion out of poverty. That's the largest and fastest poverty reduction in the history of humankind. We've got a way to go - sure. But we're on it."

She felt that the balance of the argument was clearly on her side, on humankind's side. Adopting an accusatory tone, she challenged The Visitor: "You can't seriously be contemplating the death of seven billion people?"

"And why not?" he insisted. "Have you any idea how many species on Earth have been wiped out already by the activities of humans? If current rates of human destruction of the biosphere continue, one-half of all species of life on Earth will be extinct in 100 years. To eliminate the most destructive species now would be to preserve many, many more."

The President was angry and showed it: "The human race is not just another species. This is the species of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Newton, Einstein, Gandhi, Mandela."

"And you think humankind is uniquely conscious, uniquely creative? Earth is a middling planet around a middling star. Do you know how many stars there are in the universe? Even we can only estimate the number, but it's probably around ten thousand billion billion. You think humankind matters?"

"It matters to me" snapped back the President.

"Well", continued The Visitor, "think of it as pruning a garden or pest control or stubble burning. You think that there's only one Garden of Eden? There are millions of species gardens and sometimes we have to weed out some of them. For the greater good, you understand."

"No - I don't understand. And tell me, just how would you plan to eliminate seven billion humans? Do you people have some kind of death ray"

"Nothing so crude, Madam President. If I provided a nudge to the human activity driving climate change or a prod to the current state of international relations in the Middle East, you'd probably do most of the work for us. But actually I was thinking of a virus, a global pandemic. Quicker. Cleaner."

One of the three telephones on the President's desk rang and, when she realised which phone was sounding, she immediately went over to the instrument and exchanged urgent words with someone on the other end of the line while The Visitor looked exasperated.

When the President had resumed her place on the sofa opposite her guest, he attempted to reprimand her: "Madam President, we are discussing the entire future of humankind here. I would expect to have your full attention. I hardly feel that there can be anything more important that such an existential question."

"Not to you, maybe. But to me. That was my son-in-law. My daughter is about to become a mother for the first time. I'm about to become a grandparent for the first time. Her waters have just broken. Right now, mister, nothing is more important to me."

The Visitor clearly found this sense of priorities exceedingly difficult to compute. "Some of you humans do seem to care a lot for each other sometimes."

"Most of us. Most of the time." The President gave him a harsh stare. "So does my grandchild get to live a life?"

The Visitor closed his eyes and sat rigid. The President had no idea whether he was simply contemplating or maybe communicating. But at last he stood and offered his hand. She took it and he held on while seemingly staring deep into her very being. He spoke gently: "Alright. Try again. Try harder."


Published on 30 July 2010

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