Advance Man

by Lawrence Watt-Evans

      When that first real alien ship arrived it didn't act much like all those "flying saucers" that people had reported over the past fifty years. It showed up on radar just fine. It didn't appear out of nowhere, or dodge around like crazy. It was spotted for the first time halfway between the Earth and the Moon, and it came in in a perfectly sensible approach curve. It made a smooth entry into the Earth's atmosphere somewhere over the Pacific, passed over California at about 40,000 feet, and cruised its way across much of the American west in broad daylight, descending slowly.
      And we certainly didn't try to hush it up, the way all the saucer nuts always said the government would. NASA and the Air Force held a joint press conference, and the FAA issued an advisory bulletin to all aircraft.
      The press conference and the bulletin didn't say much, of course -- nobody knew much yet. Mostly, they announced that yes, what appeared to be a genuine spaceship had arrived, and we didn't know where it came from or what was aboard or what they wanted, and any pilot flying near it did so at his or her own risk.
      Pilots went near it anyway, of course -- reporters, mostly, but also some curiosity seekers. By the time it crossed the Mississippi ordinary planes could keep up with it, and half a dozen did -- along with a fighter escort, courtesy of the Air Force.
      There was much speculation about what these strangers might want, and very few answers. The craft certainly didn't look hostile, with this open approach, and those nightmare scenarios about invasion from space had never made very much sense to begin with, since anyone with a technology advanced enough for interstellar travel ought to be able to make anything they need, rather than taking it from lesser civilizations.
      But on the other hand, even if they were friendly, what could people with such a technology want from us? Were they explorers? Missionaries? Traders?
      Would they want to deal with us at all, or were they just scientists here to collect a few samples and leave?
      We didn't know, so we watched the ship closely. When it finally landed on a cow pasture in Indiana it was surrounded by police cars, traffic helicopters, and federal agents in a matter of minutes.
      I didn't get there until hours later, though.
      I was President Digby's science advisor; the president himself hadn't gone because it was considered too risky, but the White House needed to send someone, and I was the logical choice. I was on a plane to Indianapolis twenty minutes after the ship landed, and by mid-afternoon I was in the back seat of a black Lincoln, bumping my way down a dirt road to the Stoddard family's farm, being brought up to speed over my cell phone.
      We passed half a dozen police checkpoints -- each one had a big sign reading "Proceed At Your Own Risk," but they let us pass.
      Ms. Stoddard didn't, though, until we'd paid ten dollars apiece for me, my aide, and our driver. She and her kids had the farm gate closed and had cleaned up the "Posted - No Trespassing" sign on the fencepost next to it, and the oldest boy had his father's shotgun cradled in his arms. Reporters, cops, military brass, White House staff, the Stoddards didn't care -- everybody paid. When a gold mine falls out of the sky into your back yard, you don't give free samples.
      It wasn't worth arguing. We paid. She took our money with a smile, then pointed. "Around that side," she said, "and don't you dare drive over any of my garden. Don't worry about the barking, the dogs are chained up. My husband will show you where to park."
      So we drove around back to the pasture, and there was the ship.
      You know, you'd expect a spaceship to look really out of place on a farm, but it almost didn't. It wasn't gray or silver like in the movies; it was bright yellow, just a shade lighter than a backhoe, with big red and purple symbols on it -- circles and lines and things like crooked asterisks. And it didn't look so much like a flying saucer as like an overweight starfish.
      I got out of the car and left the driver to follow Mr. Stoddard to the next field -- this one was full, with cars and helicopters everywhere. I hurried up to the crowd of people, and pushed my way to the front.
      I almost tripped over the alien pilot.
      It was short and fat, with oily maroon skin, and looked like an upside-down octopus on an uprooted stump. It pointed a tentacle at me and said, "New guy. You who?" The voice came from a black box that was slung on what might be considered its shoulder, rather than from anything like a mouth.
      I introduced myself. They'd told me on the plane that it was learning English at a fantastic rate, that the black box was some sort of translating computer and a reporter's pocket dictionary had been scanned in, but I was still startled to hear it. For one thing, it had an Indiana accent.
      "President is reddest local authority, confirm?"
      "Reddest?" I asked.
      "Highest, it means," a reporter told me.
      "What's it mean by local?"
      The reporter shrugged.
      "The president is the most powerful official on Earth," I said.
      "You represent the president?"
      "Good! Now we start."
      "Yes," I agreed. "Now we start." I had already been told that the alien had refused to say why it was here until it had the highest possible authority present -- and that was me, as the president's representative.
      It had, however, assured everyone that it was not here to conquer Earth, or steal anything. "We want water, take ice from comets. We want metal, take metal from asteroids. We want food, grow our own. You think we want your women, you need to take another look at us."
      I couldn't argue with any of that.
      "You come inside. We talk privately." It turned toward the ship, and a panel rolled open.
      I hesitated for half a second, then followed it.
      We talked for more than an hour, just the two of us -- we wanted to be absolutely sure there were no misunderstandings. I explained that the president didn't speak for the entire planet, but reassured it that he did speak for all the territory it had flown over since reaching land, and together we went over several concepts, to be as certain as we could there was no confusion. We reviewed permits, and licenses, and liability, and taxes, and entertainment. Its people had recorded some of our radio and television broadcasts, and made some observations, and it wanted to be sure nothing important had been misinterpreted. It wanted to know about governments and corporations and property rights and advertising, and I did my best to explain.
      And then it did its best to explain to me what it had come for.
      I had trouble believing it at first, and went over everything all over again, but at last I knew I was right. I knew what they wanted from us.
      Together we emerged from the ship, to find a dozen cameras and a hundred microphones were pointed at us. I pulled my cell phone out and got my direct line to the president, and then I made my speech.
      "Mr. President," I said. "Ladies and gentlemen. Our friend here, who has no name we can pronounce but who has asked us to call it George, has come to Earth not as an ambassador of some alien government, nor as a representative of its world or species, but only on behalf of a group of individuals -- a group we might call a company, or a family, or by some other term entirely. It has come here not to trade with us or threaten us, but only to make an announcement on behalf of that group. It withheld that announcement until it was certain that it would not violate any regulations or taboos, that it would not offend our sensibilities, and that it would be using terms we would understand correctly."
      That whole crowd was staring at me, and I realized that millions of people were probably seeing this on TV and hearing every word I said. I couldn't resist hogging the spotlight a little -- especially after what George had told me.
      "George's people are very different from our own, as anyone can see, but we share some of the same urges. Most of those are easily satisfied at home -- George's people have no need of any material goods we can provide, nor any knowledge we possess. However, we can give them one thing they want very much -- a new audience. The urge to show off, to be admired for one's unique talents, is apparently universal.
      "Advertising may also be universal, and that's what George does. It's here to advertise on behalf of its group, to get them the biggest audience possible when they arrive next week."
      I took a deep breath, and then I said it, as loudly and clearly as I could.
      "Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages! George came here to tell us that the greatest show in the galaxy is on its way to Earth -- the circus is coming to town!"


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