Volume 31, Number 2


John Sheirer

Diane and Ron knew who Edgar Hernandez was. Anyone who had actually heard of Edgar Hernandez knew he was a genius. As a mathematician and theoretical physicist, he wasn’t in the same league as Stephen Hawking, but he was able to hold a conversation with Hawking better than most. In fact, Hawking would have said that Hernandez was one of the strongest influences and greatest sounding boards of his final years of life. Unknown to all but their closest friends, the two had corresponded through email several times each week for nearly a decade.

Hernandez certainly wasn’t as gregarious as Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) or as media-friendly as Neil deGrasse Tyson. But both of them had quoted him is their most recent books, no small accomplishment. Hernandez never graced PBS or any of the various “science” channels, and he had turned down several “Ted Talk” opportunities over the years. He’d never even written a book, and his limited fame came from a scattering of articles in minor magazines and websites over the years that focused on what science fiction books and movies reveal about humanity’s aspirations for extraterrestrial contact. He had a knack for making complex concepts simple, rather than the other way around. Not exactly the stuff of legend, but when Stephen Hawking thinks someone has special insight, then he probably does.

Yet most of his colleagues at the Ohio high school where Hernandez had quietly and effectively taught math since 1999 didn’t know about his writings or his associations with famous intellectuals. But the people who had read all of his essays considered them as influential as anything in the small field of “alien psychology.”

When Hernandez made one of his rare public appearances, people in the know took notice. That’s why Diane and Ron were first in line for Hernandez’s lecture on October 21, 2018. Diane and Ron had read everything Hernandez had ever published and credited him with helping them understand the human race in ways that no one else could. So, the couple drove from their home in New Hampshire to the small, obscure college in Pennsylvania where Hernandez was slated to speak as part of a panel on the theme, “What do Aliens Think of Us?” at the Thirteenth Annual Conference on Extraterrestrial Theory.

Diane and Ron had never claimed to be anything special. Diane was a traffic engineer, and Ron worked as a web designer at the local bank. With a son and daughter recently graduated from college and starting careers, their late forties had transformed their mostly calm family household into a pleasantly quiet empty nest. They socialized occasionally with nearby residents of their small town between Concord and Manchester, and no one they knew would have guessed that they were interested in alien life. When they asked a neighbor to water their plants and keep an eye on their house, they said that they were visiting Diane’s aunt in Pennsylvania for the weekend. That was easier than trying to explain why they were going to what would seem to most people like nothing more than a slightly higher-end UFO convention. To Diane and Ron, though, it was much more.

Diane and Ron arrived early and found seats near the back. People filled in the rows around them during the next twenty minutes, and the smallish auditorium was packed by the time the program began. The attendees, like Diane and Ron, were mostly dressed in business-casual attire and ranged from mid-thirties to senior citizens. There were very few young people, and this wasn’t one of those alien-themed conferences that featured glowing costumes, vehicles shaped like UFOs, and lots of booths selling videos about ancient astronauts. This wasn’t exactly a science conference, but it was a serious event to the people who attended.

The moderator introduced the panelists who joined Hernandez on stage. Two had written books speculating about alien behavior and motivations, and one hosted a web-based series of video interviews with people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Diane and Ron had a hard time taking these folks seriously. Sure, their books sold well and the got a lot of internet traffic, but they were lightweights, a warm-up for the main act.

When, at last, it was Hernandez’s turn to speak, Diane and Ron tried not to look too eager—but they were, as the cliché goes, on the edge of their seats.

“My friends,” Hernandez began in his characteristic soft-spoken way, “I’d like to ask you to join me in a speculative thought experiment. Are you ready?”

Eyebrows rose and voices murmured appreciatively around the auditorium. Diane and Ron glanced at one another, anticipation in their eyes.

“Okay, here goes,” Hernandez continued. “Imagine that the earth will be destroyed by plague or disaster or war before our evening here tonight is over.”

The auditorium fell into a deep silence. Diane and Ron practically held their breath, waiting for Hernandez’s next words.

“Now, project your mind far into the future. Imagine that extra-terrestrial explorers stumble upon our little planet millions of years from now. As their ship hovers above our decimated world, their archaeologists unearth the only surviving evidence that intelligent life once thrived here.”

Diane reached out and took Ron’s hand into her own. He returned her grip and leaned slightly toward her until their shoulders touched. They both looked straight ahead, their faces masked and hiding their thoughts and emotions.

“All these alien visitors can find of human history is this blink in time while Donald Trump has been president of the United States. What would they think of us?”

Diane and Ron stiffened slightly. A mixture of groans and chuckles broke out around the audience.

Hernandez nodded and gave the audience a sympathetic smile. When the groaning subsided, he continued. “If those aliens have eyes, how will they see us? If they have noses, how will the Trump years smell to them? Will they recoil at his countless insults and attacks? If they have an advanced sense of social responsibility, what will they make of his policies that enrich the wealthy and deprive the rest?”

Most of the faces in the audience wore pained expressions of guilt and sadness. A few seemed defiant, but they were definitely a small minority here. These were educated people with intellectual curiosity, after all. These weren’t scatterbrained conspiracy nuts. This was not a place with many die-hard or even causal Trump supporters.

“We can assume these aliens would be good at math,” Hernandez said with dry humor, “so what would they think of someone who lost the popular vote by millions but claimed he won a ‘landslide’ victory?”

A wave of nervous laughter swept through the rows. Diane and Ron glanced at the people around them, covertly studying their expressions. The laughter subsided quickly, and silence returned as Hernandez continued with a more serious tone.

“If those aliens have a ‘God,’ will they ask why the most publicly religious among us ignored and excused Trump’s obvious violations of every scripture? If they’re atheist aliens who decipher right from wrong by personal morality rather than doctrine, will Trump’s self-aggrandizing ways mystify them? What about his frequent adultery and his porn-star payoffs? Will these aliens have evolved beyond adultery and porn stars in their world? Trump certainly hasn’t. What will they make of his disdain for the rule of law as he calls for the jailing of political opponents and attacks the officials investigating his own wrongdoing?

“Will these be reality-based aliens whose policies grow from facts rather than fantasy agendas? If so, what will they think of the millions of humans who believe Trump’s every utterance, bobbing along on the flow of his torrential exaggerations, flip-flops, and lies as if that’s how life is supposed to work? Will these future alien visitors think that the human beings of today were stupid, ignorant, misinformed or simply primitive?

“If these aliens have neighbors, will they wall themselves off from them out of irrational fear? Or will they reach out across the expanse because they recognize that what divides us is microscopic compared with the cosmic connections among all beings? What will they think of Trump’s treaty violations and threats to other countries? How will they judge a leader who encourages his followers to fear everyone different? What will they think of those followers who let that leader fan their fear into flames of hate?

“Perhaps these advanced aliens would read Trump’s infamous Twitter feed and think that he was from an alien race that invaded the Earth by mastering spaceflight before it mastered logic. Or compassion. Or reading comprehension. Or basic grammar and punctuation. But if they saw how many people retweeted his nonsense, they’d realize that his particular flaws and weaknesses are all too human.

“We can hope that our alien visitors have empathy, so how would they view a president and a political party that makes taking health care away from millions of people one of its cornerstone policies? And I certainly hope that these other-worldly beings have a sense of humor, so how would they react to a president who never laughs? Literally, I’m not kidding—he never laughs. And the only time he uses what he considers humor is when he’s attacking and belittling people who disagree with him. That’s not humor. That’s just mean-spirited pettiness.

“Will these aliens raise their children in families? I hope so because that’s something beautiful about human beings. So how would they feel about families being torn apart, parents sent back to the dangerous countries they’re trying to escape while their children are locked in cages? What would they think of the so-called ‘pro-family, pro-life’ humans that cheered those children being kidnapped from their desperate parents?

“We might assume these aliens have preserved the natural systems of their own home world or at least they might have seen the consequences of environmental neglect and abuse in other corners of the galaxy. What would they think of a leader who calls the scientific consensus on climate change a ‘hoax’ and who puts profit above care for a healthy earth, pollution and poison above clean air and water for our children?

“If they come in peace, will they be repulsed by Trump’s embrace of weapons and the death-profiteering gun manufacturers even amidst an epidemic of shootings?”

Hernandez shook his head, drew in a deep breath, and exhaled sharply. His voice changed from sincerely exploring difficult questions to something much closer to anger.

“Sadly, Trump and his enablers would make these aliens think that humanity was a gang of selfish, crude, dishonest, spiteful, faithless hypocrites. They’d be glad they missed us by a few million years. Humanity would be better off passing into oblivion than leaving Trumpism as our only legacy for the future.”

Hernandez paused to let the full measure of his words sink into the minds of his listeners. Any expert in human body language in the room would measure the angle of faces cast just a few degrees more acute in their incline toward the floor, so many shoulders just a few millimeters slumped from the burden of contemporary events. To someone with the power to look into the beating human hearts in that assembly, the constriction of capillaries known as “heartache” would be apparent.

Then Hernandez’s tone changed slightly as his voiced lifted just a note, and he even managed a warm smile. “Fortunately,” Hernandez said, “these aliens would also find many people who represented what is best about we human creatures. When faced with Trump, millions among us have stood firm to oppose his degradations. In fact, the aliens will discover that our planet’s resisters outnumbered those who acquiesced or facilitated Trumpism as surely as our anti-Trump marches dwarfed his spotty inauguration crowd.”

Diane and Ron exchanged glances as they saw how the turn toward optimism was a welcome relief to the assembly, releasing the heartache by a small degree.

“Maybe we resisters don’t always show our best qualities as we resist. At times we curse and rant and froth. Our anger and sadness sometimes overcome our sympathy for those tangled in Trump’s web. But our alien visitors would see that we most often keep our vision focused on the shared values of our nation, our humanity, and our planet. Most of us try our best to leave an honorable legacy instead of Trump’s disgrace.

“I hope this thought experiment never becomes reality. While a visit from alien friends might be nice, I hope the encounter doesn’t come at the cost of our world destroyed—or even tarnished by a leader who doesn’t represent us at our best. I hope our world lasts long enough to see us all gain a universal sense of sanity and connection and love as we evolve beyond the depths of Trump and his deluded enablers. I hope those aliens would find evidence that humanity as a whole is far better than the worst we’ve shown during the Trump years.”

Hernandez turned toward the moderator and his fellow panelists, who had been listening with the same rapt attention as everyone in the audience. “It’s up to us, my friends,” he said. Then he turned to face the crowd again for his final words of the day. “We must represent humanity as best we can.”

The audience was perfectly silent as Hernandez walked back to his seat on the platform, his inexpensive math teacher shoes squeaking on the hardwood stage. The gentle sound of right hands softly striking left hands began after he sat and smiled to the group. The sound gradually built as encouraging voices joined to create a wave of approval that flowed through the room. Even a small crowd of a few hundred people can applaud in a way that could be described as “thunderous,” and that’s exactly what happened at that moment.

As the applause died down several minutes later, most members of the audience talked excitedly among themselves, debating the best ways to put Hernandez’s allegory of alien visitation into practice to make our world a better place. Dozens of people formed lines to shake his hand and share words of thanks and encouragement.

Diane and Ron hadn’t fallen in with the crowd but slipped out the back of the auditorium and walked wordlessly to their car. They got in and drove through the peaceful campus, out into the small town, and then several miles along a winding country road. Then they pulled over and parked the car beneath the shade of a large maple.

The car’s engine clicked softly as it cooled in quiet woods. Diane and Ron quietly admired the red, yellow and orange maple leaves blanketing the ground and sometimes floating down onto the windshield. After a moment, Ron asked Diane, “What should we tell them?”

“I’m not sure,” she replied. “The situation is definitely more complicated than we thought.”

“And more hopeful,” Ron replied.

“Yes,” Diane said. “I was surprised by that. And pleased. Very pleased.”

“I think we agree that this changes things,” Ron said. Diane nodded. For just a moment, they seemed as shy as teenagers on a first date. Then Ron continued, “Do you want to make the report or should I?”

“I’ll do it,” Diane replied. “You did it last time, sweetie.” She drew what looked like a common cell phone from her purse. With her right index finger, she touched the center of the screen and held it there for five full seconds. The screen lit with a soft green glow, and a faint hum filled the car’s interior. Diane placed the device on the dashboard, where it vibrated slightly and projected a nearly transparent blue beam through the windshield, between the maple leaves and branches above the car, and off into the sky farther than any human eye could see.

Diane drew a deep breath and spoke. “Team ninety-six reporting.”

After a few seconds, a thin, robotic voice edged from the phone-like device, barely audible. “Please report, team ninety-six.”

Diane and Ron exchanged glances, and they both nodded. Diane leaned slightly toward the dashboard. “We have new information. The situation here on Earth may not be as bad as we thought. We saw something today that gives us hope for the future despite everything else we’ve seen lately.”

The electronic voice grew stronger and clearer, sounding more human and less mechanical. “We’re intrigued, team ninety-six. Do you have a recommendation for the Prime Council?”

“We do,” Diane said. She leaned toward Ron and whispered, “Do you want to tell them?”

Ron nodded, and they both smiled. He spoke toward the dashboard. “We recommend standing down. Repeat, recommend standing down. Cancel the invasion. We think it’s possible that the humans might be able to survive this mess, learn from their mistakes, overcome this terrible regime …” He paused. “Honestly, we weren’t sure for quite a while, but we think there are enough good people down here that the humans might be able to grow.”

Diane took what looked like a small crystal from her pocket and placed it next to the cell phone on the dashboard. “I’m uploading the details now,” she said. The crystal glowed the same light blue and vibrated, sending small sparks toward the phone. The blue beam grew a deeper hue for several seconds, and then it winked back to the original faint light.

The car was silent for a moment. Diane unconsciously fidgeted with her wedding ring while Ron’s tongue explored the back of his lower front teeth. These human bodies were strange, but they’d grown to appreciate them. The maple leaves skittered and settled, as maple leaves tend to do on this beautiful planet.

Then the voice finally replied: “The Prime Council has received several reports similar to yours from many other teams. There is hope. We’ve agreed to your stand-down recommendation.”

As Diane and Ron drove north to their operational base in New Hampshire, they spoke of their friends, neighbors, coworkers—and even the crazy creatures who ranted on their televisions each night as if Earth were alone in the universe, as if terrible leaders were above consequences for the ways they didn’t live up to the trust humanity had erroneously placed in them.

They repeated Edgar Hernandez’s words: “It’s up to us. We must represent humanity as best we can.”

Diane and Ron were surprised to admit how much affection they felt for this backward race with so many troubles threatening to overtake their potential merits and aspirations. They spoke of how much their own two children had learned from all their human classmates, teachers and friends over the years, how much their kids had grown into two good, young adults had taken on the best human qualities while maintaining a love for their own ancestry as they set out into this alien world to create their own homes—not operational bases, Diane and Ron had come to realize, but actual homes.

Diane and Ron decided it was time for a new phase of their operation. They vowed to become involved with voter registration drives, making sure humans understood how wonderful it was that they could have a voice in their own future. They promised to campaign for worthy political candidates who would actually serve their fellow humans instead of leeching off of them or touting the false glory of power. They committed to stop avoiding political discussions at work or backyard cookouts or the local supermarket. They’d start asking questions of the humans they interacted with in everyday situations, gently probing them to think of the consequences of their political actions and inactions.

They wouldn’t force their views on anyone. Instead, they’d model a higher form of debate than the screeching that humans too often fell into. They’d point out that putting meaningless slogans on hats isn’t a strong sign of effective leadership. They’d focus on facts, positive emotions, empathy and gentle humor. They’d encourage their colleagues on the other visitor teams to do the same in their interactions with the humans around them. Diane even talked about running for a position as a visitor team representative on the Prime Council, something neither of them had considered before that day. Ron hugged her when she brought up the idea and vowed to support her in any way she needed.

They even planned to make satirical signs to poke fun at the monsters who thought they were invincible and wave those signs at human marches every chance they got. If their five centuries of life had taught them anything, it was that the worst monsters feared resistance and could be defeated with wise discussions, passionate actions, good humor and getting good people across the universe to care, to speak up, to raise as many hands as their anatomy gave them, and to vote.

Instead of just passively observing humanity, Diane and Ron decided they’d start to help.