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Close Encounters: A Fable for Our Time

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Dateline: August 16, 2013:

Yesterday, at precisely 1:17 P.M., GMT, they came. From London to Moscow, from New York to Beijing, their ships blotted out the sky. They merely hovered there, silent and imperturbable. We waited. For two minutes, four, six, eight... the world waited. Nobody moved, nobody breathed -- or so it seemed. Perhaps for the first time in history, our wills, our hearts and our minds were joined, one question reverberating throughout the billions: "Have they come in peace?"

After about ten minutes, our collective attention began to wander. Supervisors cleared there throats meaningfully, indicating that while, yes, this was certainly an unusual and even intriguing event, there was, after all, work to be done. Network affiliates that had cut away to cover the salvation and/or destruction of Earth had tough decisions to make: "How much longer before we get back to the Kardashians? Should the stars keep dancing or do they need to take a stretch break?"

Just as our collective attention span had about run its course, hatchways on the immense discs silently opened and disgorged a torrent of what appeared to be paper leaflets. The citizenry scrambled to and fro, anxious to see what their technologically superior new friends (enemies?) had to say. Were they eviction notices? Were they invitations to co-create the long-awaited "Heaven on Earth"?

From Pakistan to Norway, from Mali to Bolivia, fevered hands grabbed at the leaflets, frantic eyes scanning their contents. But the interstellar message was composed of but one word and the word was this: "ICE."

"ICE"? Seriously? What in the world? The aliens were not sticking around for hints. As the last of the leaflets reached the surface, the hatches retracted and they left us to our own devices.

Dateline: September 16, 2013.

It has been a month since The Visit. Things are pretty much back-to-normal. The Packers' season is off to a good start. Dennis Rodman has been burning the midnight oil as our first official ambassador to North Korea. Kim and Kanye's baby is doing fine.

The truth is that we just couldn't figure it out. What was "ICE" supposed to mean? It's not that we didn't debate it. We did. The G-20 convened an emergency meeting. Scholars from all branches of the sciences and liberal arts discussed and dissected the possible permutations and implications of "The Message". Wolf Blitzer had to go on temporary leave when, after 117 straight hours on air for his CNN special, "Just who are these Aliens, anyway?: The Ultimate Speculation Fest!" he descended into non-sensical ravings.

But then, yesterday, at precisely 1:17 PM GMT, they re-appeared. Again, they hovered silently and imperturbably. Again, just when our impatience began to get the better of us, the hatches opened. But this time, instead of leaflets, there was a video. And not just any video. First of all: high definition. I mean really high definition--3D, maybe even 4D (wait a second, is that even possible?)--no special glasses needed. Talk about IMAX-this filled the entire sky. Ahhhh, this was more like it! And so we watched, even the supervisors and the network affiliates.

And we saw... a tray of ice cubes: An HD, sky-filling tray of ice cubes. We looked at each other. What, another riddle? What is it with these guys? Then something started to happen. The ice cubes started to melt. It was a time-lapse video! Over and over again, we watched as the ice went from a solid frozen state to some melting around the edges and, finally, to a tray full of mini puddles.

Conversations broke out among the assembled multitudes. What were they trying to tell us? Why had they traveled who-knows-how-many millions of light years to show us melting ice? It must be important. The video loop continued until, after about an hour, the ice cubes were replaced by a message; four words spelled out in Himalayan-sized letters: "You have two weeks". We stopped talking. We looked at each other and then looked back to the sky. But they were gone.

We had two weeks. That much we knew. But two weeks for what? This time it was serious. Dancing with the Stars was immediately trimmed from five nights a week to three. Kim K. had to bungee jump, cradling her infant daughter while simultaneously experiencing a wardrobe malfunction merely to garner a headline. Fortunately, Wolf was back in the saddle. The night after the "Dire Message", he interviewed a panel of appliance executives and salespeople who were convinced that the aliens were planning a hostile takeover of all coolant-related products.

Finally, after a week of panic and conjecture, one particular theory began to gain traction. Maybe they weren't talking about ice cubes. Maybe it was a metaphor. They construct city-size space ships, surely they must know about metaphor. A bureaucratic aide had timidly suggested to his boss that, "Well, you know, I read somewhere that the glaciers and sea ice and even the great land ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica were melting much in the manner of the video ice." This observation worked itself up the chain-of-command. Finally, it reached the Oval Office and, when apprised, the president replied, "Well, yes, my science advisers mentioned something about that. I plan to authorize more studies of the situation." When reminded of the Dire Message deadline he conceded the point and brought the theory to the G-20, the National Academy of Science and, of course, to Wolf.

The world leaders clicked on their respective reports of the ice melt and other climate related matters that had been filed away for future consideration. They entered into top-secret marathon sessions. Some argued that "We can do whatever we want with our ice, and the Aliens can go and stick it if they think humans will bow down to their dictates." The more level-headed pointed out that, given the city-sized spaceships and all, perhaps telling them to stick it would not be in our national or, indeed, international interests.

Finally the day of reckoning arrived. Reporters and officials gathered at the designated meeting site in Zurich, Switzerland. Rumors had emerged that, given the nature and content of the theory, climate scientists were being gathered in order to create a delegation to communicate with the Aliens. A few minutes before 1:17 GMT, a helicopter, bearing the new flag of "The Earth", arrived. To the surprise of all, instead of the expected delegation, a single man, dressed in business casual, emerged.

Reporters rushed in.

"Who are you? Have you been chosen as a representative of the climate scientists?"

"Um. Well, not exactly. To my understanding, there was a group of the world's pre-eminent scientists chosen and ready to go. You know, peer- reviewed, top of their field, that sort of thing. But then, at the last minute, the decision makers, they decided to go with me."

"Why, who are you?"

"My name is Steve. I won a 'Citizens for Sensible Solutions' essay contest funded by Exxon, Chevron... various other energy interests. After they chose me, they had a chat with the world leaders. I gotta tell you, these energy guys seem to have a lot of sway."

"But what qualifications do you have for this mission?"

"Well, I got a B minus in biology back in tenth grade... " he began. But it was 1:17. The ships had arrived and Steve dematerialized in front of our eyes. Again, the world waited, all eyes trained on the video feed from Zurich. At the stroke of 2:00, Steve re-materialized. He blinked several times. He looked around at those assembled and into the cameras broadcasting to all corners of The Earth. Then he spoke:

"Wow. That's all I can say. Wow! I thought we we're an advanced race. But I mean, hah! These guys, they have stuff you can't even imagine. I don't even know where to begin. For starters, they don't have to talk, they just read each other's minds. They don't have to walk -- they just pop out of one place and into another like that! And they got these kind of interactive holo-decks, you know, like Star Trek, only better and..."

"Steve! Steve!," the reporters cut in, "What about The Dire Message? What did they say?"

"Oh, right. Yeah. Well, after welcoming me, we finally got down to it. And guess, what, we we're right! It was about the melting ice and all that other climate stuff. You know, how the melting ice is already changing weather patterns. And also, the droughts and storms...all that stuff. And the thing they went on and on about was -- I mean they wouldn't shut up about it -- was that it was just getting started. There's these things called feedbacks, where, for instance, it gets hotter and so more ice melts and that makes it even hotter and so more ice melts and so on. They said we're getting really close to getting hot enough and losing enough ice that the whole thing will accelerate and then...well...they said we'd be in real trouble."

"Steve, what did they say we should do? Did they tell you?"

"Nah. We didn't even get to that part. They were real nice, but after awhile -- you know, I'm a polite guy and all -- I had to tell 'em: 'Hey guys. Excuse me for saying so, but I've been appointed by humanity to speak on their behalf and what you're telling me is just B.S. plain and simple. The climate scientists are all on the take. Everybody knows that. They lie about the data so that they can get grant money.'"

"I gotta tell you, boy, that got their attention! They just went silent and looked at me. It was kind of creepy actually. One of them gave this funny alien laugh but mostly they just sat there staring at me."

"Finally, the leader said, 'This is a very serious accusation. Do you have any proof to back that up?'"

"I just laughed. And I thought these guys were so smart!"

"'Proof?'" I told them, "I don't need proof. What do you think I am a scientist or something?'"

"After I said that, one of them laughed again. Another one sounded like he might have started crying, I wasn't quite sure, he kinda had his face buried in his hands. The leader gave me a little wave and said, 'You are free to go.' and, before I knew what happened, I was back here."

"But I got great news, everybody. I think they're going to leave us alone, after all. I'm pretty sure they went back to wherever they came from. We can keep right on doing just what we've been doing. We're gonna be just fine!"