Entrance Exam

1. The Invitation

“Stop and listen to me, Pavan! It’s utterly insufferable and boorish to use words like sagacious and perspicacity in a speech. Just don’t do it. People won’t understand. They’ll get annoyed. Worse than that, they’ll just stop listening.” Alexander spiced his message with just the right dash of frisson to ensure the Oxford-educated speech writer got the message.

From behind him, Alex was dimly aware of a door opening, a head poking in, and a soft, but urgent voice trying to get his attention. “Excuse me…” it pleaded. Alex ignored the unwelcome interruption. Over the phone, Pavan had made the mistake of trying to defend his poetic genius, and that, right now, irritated Alex more.

“Stop it! I won’t hear another word. I know the pacing is divine, the sentiment sublime, and none but the most priggish oaf could fail to be transfixed, nay transubstantiated, by the heaven-sent richness and evocative beauty of your language. I am convinced the muses now feel bereft, stripped naked of any further inspiration for the rest of us mere mortals.

“Still, your brilliant masterpiece won’t play, as they say, in Peoria. President Mason, don’t you know, is no Demosthenes.” Put-downs this delicious came along too rarely to be stopped mid-course, not even when a louder and more insistent “Boss…” was sent his way. Alex did not miss a beat.

“Return your laurel leaf to Terpsichore and give her alms in gratitude. Then, disrobe your prose instead. What is left, to be sure, will be base and crude, but the peasants will not find it revolting, and therefore will not rise up to protest. Instead, they …” His alternative was left forever unspoken, interrupted for a third time by the voice that would not be ignored.

“Alex!” it demanded. He swiveled towards the door, ready to protest. Before he could speak, the levitating head of Lorelei, poking out from the partly open door, went on. “It’s the President. She wants to see you.” There was no pause for effect. “Now!” the head insisted, leaving Alex with no choice. Sadly, his metaphorical banquet would have to be left incompletely savored.

“Gotta go, Pavan. Rewrite your opus and make it simple. Not stupid - just simple. Send me your next draft tomorrow. ‘Bye!’ With a click, Pavan was gone. Lorelei was still there. “Ok… What does she want?”

“Pete didn’t say. He made it clear that your butt better be in the Oval Office in five minutes. That was two minutes ago now. Actually, his language wasn’t that clean.”

Without another word, Alex hustled out of the room and through the west wing. After a quick once over, the guards waved him into the room. Entering, he caught the eye of the President in mid-sentence. She smiled mysteriously and finished her thought.

“… and here he is.” She made a great show of studying her watch before looking back at him. “How nice of you to make it here with seconds to spare.” Alex did his best to ignore the well-worn joke on his tendency to stretch the limits of punctuality. Some things were not worth a response. He did not need to wait long.

“Alex, come here and meet Ambassador Shril-ukashtra, representing the Shiniath.” She motioned to a seemingly empty couch with its back to Alex. While he struggled to recall just who the Shiniath were, he walked around the couch to offer his hand.

Alex was startled to discover a long, but swarthy, snake-like creature stretched along the length of the sofa. Three short, branch-like appendages were waving aimlessly out of both sides of the mottled, brightly colored upper torso. The creature’s head was long and sinuous, terminating with a wide mouth full of sharp teeth that opened and closed rhythmically.

What was this? Nowhere on earth had Alex ever seen anything like it. He turned in confusion to the President. The smirk hidden in the corners of her smile showed just how much she was enjoying his discomfort. With perfect diplomatic poise, she addressed them both:

“Ambassador Shril, I am pleased to present to you Alexander Mayfield Candler, Press Secretary to the President. Alex, this is Ambassador Shril of the planet Shu.” Looking towards Alex, she continued, “When greeting a Shiniath, it is customary to reach out your hand. They will entwine their tendrils around your fingers.” Shocked, but trusting in the safety of protocol, Alex obeyed.

He flinched slightly at a fleeting touch that was damp and tingly, but otherwise tried not to show any sign of his acute discomfort. The President motioned him to sit in an empty chair facing the couch. Once again, he complied. Before he could begin asking questions, she spoke again, this time soothingly.

“Listen, Alex. I know this is confusing, but I don’t have time to answer all your questions. This much I can tell you: Six months ago, the Shiniath secretly initiated contact with us. They have been watching and studying us for decades. They asked us to keep their presence a secret for a while, and we agreed. You are only the seventh person on earth who knows there really are aliens out there.

“Joseph here”, she pointed to Mr. Andrews, whose sudden appointment as the new Science Advisor five months ago now made a lot more sense, “and Francine,” the Secretary of State, “will fill you in on all the scientific and diplomatic developments over the last few months. Suffice it to say that our new friends appear to be closer to E.T. on the ‘friendly to Earthlings scale’ than the Predator. That’s fortunate for us, because their technology is decidedly superior.”

“So now we come to you. Naturally, you’ve already guessed I want you here because it is time to let the rest of Earth on our little secret. You’re half right. Begin planning a press conference four days from now. Tomorrow, show me your outline for my opening speech, and a draft of the questions we can expect will be asked. That’s the easy half, and it’s going to put my name in the history books.

“More interesting to me, and I suspect you too, is the other reason you are here, the part that will put your name in the history books.” The President flashed that mysterious smile again, pausing for dramatic effect. Alex had never known anyone who enjoyed playing games with people more. “Hmmm … This requires some background…

“As you might suspect, the Shiniath are not the only aliens out there. Their travels have brought them in contact with many other inhabited worlds. On a few of these worlds, they found several advanced races who had formed a Federation similar to our United Nations.

“The Shiniath want to join the Federation, but need our help. Evidently, the rules are clear: any race who wants to join must be sponsored by another race who is also not a member. For some reason not yet clear to me, the Shiniath have chosen us to be their sponsor. What is truly strange though is that of all the five billion people on this planet, they have requested that you be their Chief Advocate.

I do take comfort in this choice, as it suggests they may not be as intelligent as we first feared. Oh well, there is simply no accounting for taste.” Alex responded to the goad with his best imitation of Mona Lisa, hoping to hide his desperate desire to make sense of this avalanche of revelations. Maybe he had her fooled, as she continued without pause.

“Be sure your bags are packed before the press briefing begins. The Ambassador’s ship leaves Earth as soon as it is finished. You will be going with them.

Gah! Enough already. You have work to do. How do you justify wasting my time when more important matters need my attention. As much fun as this surely must be for you, I don’t have the time. You’re dismissed. Keep the news to yourself. Don’t tell your staff. Don’t tell your family. Return tomorrow with what I asked for.”

Despite her flippant tone, and annoying misrepresentation of the situation, Alex knew she wanted him to go. Questions buzzed around his head like crazy, but they would have to wait. Only as he left the room did he realize that she had done all the talking, leaving him speechless. That did not happen often.