(Tuesday, March 25, 2045)
“Mommy, I’m scared.”
“Yes, darling…we all are.”
“But Mommy! I can’t fall asleep.”
“Just try, darling. I’ll be awake, watching you.”
“You can’t sleep, either?”
“It is best to just sleep, sweet pea. Try to close your eyes and forget about everything.”
“But they’re terrible! They’re monsters!”
“I know, but they are far, far away. They can’t hurt us.”
Barbara Johansen was a slim, beautiful woman of forty who was trying to put her daughter to sleep in a new world full of innovation and promise. This was also a united world with a new system of government that had arisen peacefully and had benefitted most of the world’s population by elevating them out of poverty. This new world was governed by a central authority called AmEarth, based in New York City. It boasted massive supercomputers that optimized the world’s resources for “the greater good.” It relied heavily on the private sector, as its system was a derivative of the American structure and was based loosely on that country’s constitution. The trade-off for all of this apparent value was an ominous, unexplained fear that all of the citizens on the planet experienced from time to time. Barbara Johansen could no longer sleep for more than a few hours at a time, and her deep fears had slowly transferred to her precious twelve-year-old, Brianna. They lived in a beautiful Georgian estate in the northeast region of the former United States, only a short hour’s commute from New York City. Barbara lived in a seven-bedroom, four-bathroom home with all the gadgets and modern comforts imaginable, even an indoor swimming pool. However, knowing that the Earth was in imminent danger had taken a toll on her, and had begun to affect her child.
After finally getting Brianna to sleep, Barbara left the bedroom and closed the elegant door into its frame with care. She tiptoed down the wide corridor on the Persian rug runner, past the family photos on the wall showing her perpetually photogenic family posing at beaches, ski resorts, and family reunions. Other pictures showed her young husband with former American president Barack Obama and with former president Donald Trump as well as with the former British prime minister David Cameron, among other notable figures. She went into the master bedroom, closed the door behind her, and walked past her fluffy bed, replete with pillows but empty of her husband. She entered the master bathroom and flicked the light switch, which illuminated her image in the mirror. New, bigger bags under her eyes had compromised her youth, and the sleeplessness also made her skin saggy and pale. She looked at least ten years older than she had only a year earlier. She looked hard at herself and realized that she was still a beautiful woman, but one in a cycle of deterioration that no cream could fix. At this rate, Peter might well leave her for a younger woman before the year was out. Now she could add another fear to the list—abandonment, in addition to the constant threat from beyond the stars.
Her husband, Peter Johansen, was a jovial and happy man, standing a handsome six feet tall, and quite fit for his forty-two years. Barbara’s fear of abandonment was unfounded. The last thing Peter contemplated was leaving her. She was his soul mate and true love—something that a few wrinkles wouldn’t change. Peter’s parents had stayed married throughout his childhood and his upbringing had been ordinary, even boring at times, but his past had instilled strong values of family ties.
Peter’s job at the AmEarth Central Authority (known simply as ACA) as a foreign affairs deputy absorbed his intellect and challenged him every day. He approached the job with a level of seriousness that fostered his significant success. The alien civilization that terrified Barbara, along with billions of other people on the planet, was incredibly distant and seemingly friendly, and Peter never seemed particularly worried about the threat. Barbara sensed either denial or bravery in him, and it seemed to fluctuate every day. She had always known Peter on a deep, intimate level, but his attitude toward the aliens kept her guessing about who he really was inside. The last year had been a difficult one for their relationship. Peter was now in the high ranks of the ACA, which limited his available time with the family.
He would be kept late again. “The Bolivian crisis,” as he called it, was coming to a head. Earlier, Barbara had received a call from him and had been upset at how short he had been with her. She didn’t care about the why. All she knew was that the news was scaring her. The world, in fact, had become something of a terrifying place. The old types of fear, like the possibility of a crazy person committing a crime, or news of some vicious conflict in another part of the world, had faded and been replaced with a new fear: the threat of otherworldly beings without clear motives. This was a new type of terror altogether.
Peter had explained that there were aliens out there, but that they posed no imminent threat. The World Protection Project had been started specifically to address these fears. The Earth is very big, he had calmly explained over and over, and he had promised that things would be easier in a few years once the ACA had its massive infrastructure project in place. Barbara remembered the basic idea of the protection plan, but she desperately needed Peter tonight and he was not there for her. The World Protection Project wouldn’t do her any good. His soothing words rang true, but they worked better when he was attached to them. She washed her face and rubbed on some anti-aging cream, even though she knew that it was just creative marketing. Some creams were better than others, but an anti-aging promise was one of the oldest gimmicks in the book.
Barbara left the bathroom and went downstairs to find Scott, her seventeen-year-old son sitting in the den, playing on his computer. He was wearing a special headset and slim glasses that provided him with an immersive 360-degree view of the game map. In that fantasy world, he dueled and fought with his friends. Some of these players were his actual friends from high school, where he was a senior, but he also had some online “friends” who lived in distant corners of the world. These “friends” were yet another of Barbara’s fears. Who knew what ideas could come into her son’s ears through strangers posing as teenagers?
She touched him on the shoulder and motioned for him to stop and talk to her. He gestured with a flash of five fingers, meaning minutes, she assumed, and began typing furiously, explaining to his buddies that he was needed elsewhere. A few minutes later, he stood up, took off his game gear, and sat down next to his mother at the granite counter attached to the cooking area. She still found it hard to believe that this strong, young, six-foot-tall man had come out of her. She was sipping on a cup of tea as he slumped down into the seat and turned to her.
“What’s up?” Scott asked.
“I’m worried,” she replied, setting her cup down.
She knew from the look on Scott’s face that he could practically feel her apprehension.
“What’s eating at you? Still the same things about…what’s out there? Dad already told us that we’re not in any real danger. Shouldn’t we believe him?”
“Yes, but…” She tried to explain, but her voice trailed off.
It was only a feeling.
“It’s starting to get to Brianna, too. This whole thing is so unfair to you kids. You’ve barely had a life yet, and…” She was feeling panicked and her thoughts were coming too quickly.
“Can we stop going to school?” Scott asked with a smirk.
“Then it’s not that serious! You’d take us out of school if you thought the world was ending, right?”
“Yeah, and we’d all go to Hawaii!”
She became a bit more animated and started to snap out of her brief depressive spell.
“Do you remember when AmEarth began?”
“Of course. It was the twenty-third anniversary this year. I was working and I think I met your father that year. Why?” she replied, curious to see what her son was getting at.
“The first announcement for uniting the Earth was before that, though, right?”
“Yes, it was announced at a State of the Union address.”
“Right, I’ve seen that over and over, but what were things like before that…you know, years ago? When America was normal, before the threat?”
“They’re not teaching you about that in school?” she answered, wondering what he was after.
“Yes, of course, but…what was life like for you…before?”
“Well, it was similar. Countries were different, and to some degree they still are. But back then they were in constant conflict with one another.” She heard her “teaching voice” fall into place.
“No, Mom, I understand that. I mean life in general. What was the main difference? What were you afraid of back then?”
“Arabs,” she said without hesitation.
“Yes. Before the world united, the biggest fear here in America was a nuclear device being stolen and detonated in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles by terrorists. Now, NASA controls all the nuclear weapons, so that fear just…went away,” she responded.
“So when the US revealed the true purpose of NASA, it came as a surprise?”
“You have no idea. I remember it like it was yesterday. The entire planet was listening online and on television. It was a massive shock. But looking back, we all should have known!”
“What do you mean?” Scott asked.
“Well, NASA had been around for decades, but they only had one original mission—to get a man to the moon—and they did that back in 1969! Yet, they were still getting appropriations of billions and billions of dollars, but for what? Going up in shuttles into space and coming back a few months later? It was almost incomprehensible that society allowed such massive spending for meaningless missions. Get it?”
“Think of it like this…before we were told what NASA was really doing, it simply looked like an extremely expensive division of the government throwing money away, but we kept voting for it to go on and on. It was crazy, Scott. The numbers didn’t match up, but everyone accepted it. After all, most people aren’t rocket scientists. Looking back, it was so obvious, and now we understand. That type of extreme spending drove us into the debt crisis. The US government knew that most of those expenses were going into the World Protection Project. It was one of the biggest secrets in global politics. Now, it all makes perfect sense.”
“I guess…to older people like you.”
“Thanks a lot, Scott!’
“You know what I mean, Mom,” Scott replied with a charming smile.
“It wasn’t just politics and spending, though; the alien announcement also caused huge issues within religions across the world.”
“Well, people are free to practice any religion in AmEarth, just like how it was in America, and there is still a separation of church and state. However, that separation is much stronger now.”
“Basically, the moment that alien life was confirmed, it became difficult for religions to cope. Some tried to embrace this new development, like the Catholic Church, which went on a campaign to baptize the aliens. However, in reality, the situation became untenable and their followers dwindled even further.”
“If we’re ‘made in God’s image,’ then these Keplerians are obviously not. I mean, they are physically different than us, but what does that mean? No religion of the past had made any provisions for aliens!”
“Most people that I know believe in God.”
“I believe in a God, too, Scott…sort of. But I can no longer conform to a single religion. I believe in a greater energy—a life force.”
“I don’t,” Scott replied confidently.
“That’s fine. People have the right to believe whatever they want. One good thing that AmEarth has managed to do is eliminate most religious extremism. That’s no longer such a huge problem as it was in the past. Extremists can try to live in the Dark Ages, but the younger generation is not going back. AmEarth is helping people get a better education and find opportunities; fortunately, that’s stopping a lot of that past craziness.”
“AmEarth is antireligion?”
“No, no…AmEarth is a secular government that believes in freedom of religion. It believes that all forms of education should be evidence-based, so scientific thought is not compromised. The thing is, when you educate purely through science, most religions fade behind the facts. AmEarth is pro-science. There was a time when evolution was being contested, and even refuted in certain backward areas, but it can no longer be removed from school curriculums.”
“That’s good to know. It must have been a weird place to grow up,” Barbara’s son mused.
“It certainly had its strange moments,” she admitted.
Barbara continued cooking as her fears gradually diminished throughout the history lesson—one that Scott already knew. She realized that he was merely engaging her and calming her fears through discourse, but she appreciated the effort.
AmEarth had begun with the revelation that an alien society existed and had made contact. To Scott, this was no longer a big deal, since it had happened before he was born. It was normal and he had found a place for it within the greater context of his life. Scott was oblivious to many of the emotions that had gripped people after that initial announcement. The young were always more receptive to reality-shaking revelations, and Scott was particularly hardy. Only very strong emotions could shake him, and these came few and far between.
When the announcement about the Kepler planet and its inhabitants was made, a lot of complex information had to be convincingly conveyed in lay terms. Scott could still remember that first “alien life” speech, not from the day it actually happened, but from videos and recordings seen at school and online.
The speech began with President Donald Trump speaking during his last State of the Union Address. The Senate chamber was full and widespread applause interrupted him every few minutes. The most memorable moment followed a particularly raucous standing ovation, when the president’s tone changed. He cleared his throat, put his papers down, and asked Congress to listen quietly and carefully to a difficult truth.