THE CONTROL GROUP
We first heard about the alien ships on the trending section of Facebook. Some scientist from some radio telescope in South America said that they had received a transmission from an alien spacecraft headed directly for Earth. He had been told to stay quiet, but people needed to know about it so that they could prepare. The government was covering it up because they had no way to protect us from the oncoming doom.
Naturally, we dismissed the claim as the ramblings of a crazy person. Instead of heeding his warning, we continued on with our lives. We ate junk food, complained about traffic, and worried about politics. But there were some of us who were not as dismissive of the scientists. Those people trained their telescopes to the point in the sky that the scientist had told us about, waiting to see if there might be a glimmer of a spaceship in the distance. At first, there was nothing, and their conversations on the online forums were mainly about how there was nothing in the sky, along with a lengthy conversation about how to best make soufflé on a camp stove.
However, two months after we first heard about the spaceships, and one month and twenty-nine days after most of us forgot about it, someone posted about how they had seen a star in the sky in a spot where it should not have been. It was right where the scientist had told us that the spaceship was coming from. The forum community quickly mobilized, looking at that same point in the sky the next night, confirming the existence of the rogue star. As the days passed, they charted its movement. It was travelling in the opposite direction from what it should have been, and appeared to be gaining brightness by the hour.
Upon this discovery, the spaceship story was again atop the trending topics on Facebook. We were intrigued by this find, but still remained skeptical. It was not until it became brighter for a week straight that we seriously considered the idea that a spaceship was headed for us. At this point, the governments of the world could not stay quiet anymore. Their silence and denials only provided more fuel to the conspiracy theorists, who had now become the majority of the population.
The President appeared on TV one night, after the star was so bright that people could see it with their naked eyes, admitting to the media that they had discovered that there was an alien spacecraft headed for Earth a little over two months ago, but they did not tell us because they did not want to start a panic. And there was no need to worry because if the ship continued towards us, they would launch nuclear weapons to stop it. We would be safe. There was no need to panic.
Of course, upon hearing that there was no need to panic, we all panicked. The President had confirmed our worst fears, that aliens were going to invade our homes and kill us all. Nuclear weapons would not be able to protect us from them. This part, at least, we were right about. When the President gave the order a week later to nuke the spaceship, all of the nuclear weapons stations around the world were suddenly incapacitated. The firing mechanisms would not go, leaving the missiles in their tubes. The President appeared on TV again, this time more somber, saying that our last line of defense had failed. The aliens must have disabled them somehow. They would arrive in three days. Hopefully they would be benevolent.
Looting increased in the days leading up to first contact, but there was a sharp drop-off the day before they were scheduled to arrive. We must have realized that our possessions would be meaningless if we were dead, causing us to stop and sit in contemplation on what we thought was our final day.
But the arrival of the alien ship was not our final moment. Instead of being one giant Independence Day spaceship that shot laser beams into the White House, the ship was actually many large, globe-shaped TVs that hovered over all the major cities of the world. We watched the TVs on our TVs scroll text across their rounded faces. They said:
Thank you for participating in the Sentient Species Experiment as a control group. We wish for you to fill out a quick survey on the devices that will be supplied shortly. If you have any questions about the study, we will be happy to answer them once a majority of you have filled out the survey.
Once the text had scrolled along the TVs, our thumb and forefingers came together, and out of a small flash of light between them, computer tablets, the size of a sheet of paper and nearly as thick, appeared in our hands. Every single person on the planet had one of these clear devices. On the screen was written a question:
1. On a scale from 1 to 5 (one being most satisfied, five being least) how would you rate the technological progress of your species?
The newscasters, who were now also holding the tablets, urged us not to fill out the survey until more could be known about the devices. The feed quickly switched over to the President, who told us the same thing. Until we knew more about the devices, it was safest to do nothing. Most of us obeyed this directive. The idea that some alien species could make things appear in our hands without warning or consent was enough to scare us into leaving them alone, but there were a few for whom the curiosity of what else was on the survey was too much to overcome.
Those courageous and/or naïve few informed us that the remaining questions on the survey were:
2. On a scale from 1 to 5, how would you rate your cultural progress as a species?
3. On a scale from 1 to 5, how would you rate your social progress as a species?
4. If given the choice, would you want to be ruled by a superior species?
5. Would you be willing to give up freewill if it meant being able to accomplish greater things and eradicate conflict and disease?
6. Are you happy with your current population level? If not, would you prefer it to be smaller or greater?
7. On a scale from 1 to 5, how would you rate your existence?
After this, the tablet unlocked and allowed the user full control over it. It appeared to have many of the same abilities of modern tablets, except that it had an option to connect to the “outernet” that was not currently working. Some people theorized that it might turn on once enough people had filled out the questionnaire.
Even though there did not appear to be much danger in answering the questions, most people did not. It was still too jarring to have had the device appear in our hands so unexpectedly.
In the months that followed, people left their religions in droves. Many could not reconcile the idea of aliens with a god. After seeing that we were a part of an alien experiment, many people assumed that the aliens had created us, though those who still believed in the religions pointed out that we did not know that was the truth. Still, most people did not wait to have that confirmed. This was a dark time for us. We did not know who we were anymore. Were we creations of some alien species for the sake of science? Was any of our existence real? They said that we were the control group, but was this actually the experiment? None of these questions could be answered until we answered their questions, but since we were too afraid to do so, we remained scared and confused.
Leaders of politics and thought struggled to come to a consensus of what the best answers would be. Political leaders said that giving up freewill was always bad, but thought leaders considered how our world could be better. This could be our chance to eradicate evil and reach the stars, whatever the cost. They argued and debated on this and the other questions, going back and forth on which answer would best help the human race; it was always about the future of the human race. Often, the fiery debates would end with either both saying that the best thing to do was to not answer the questions, or one saying that he had and a scuffle breaking out.
Over time, though, these questions became more of a joke. Rate your existence? How are you supposed to do that? Pundits and comedians often used the aliens for their humor, joking about how they had decided to rate their existence based on silly things like how Doritos had just released the XL family-size bag. These jokes softened our hardline stance to the questionnaire, and over time we began to fill it out. Once it was filled out, the tablet was really quite nice and interfaced well with all of our current technology. It even had a fantastic autocorrect that was helpful for typing on the virtual keyboard.
After six months, the ball-TVs changed their message with a loud bing. Now they read:
Thank you for filling out the questionnaire. If you would like, you may now ask us questions for the next 24 hours about the study.
When everyone picked up their tablets to ask the TVs questions, there already was a field open on the screen stating:
Submit your questions about the Sentient Species Experiment here.
We all asked as many questions as we could think of and about more than just the experiment. We asked anything that we thought that the aliens might answer. This was our opportunity to learn everything we thought we would never know. Is there a god? Why do we exist? Is there a greater purpose for our lives? What is right and wrong?
The next day the TVs binged again, finally changing their message to:
Thank you for asking your questions. We have answered any we deemed relevant to the study. You will find a link to the top five questions and all others on your tablets. We wish you well in all of your future endeavors.
They continued to hover above the cities for a few more minutes before zooming straight up into the sky and away into space.
We grabbed our tablets to see what they had answered. The top five questions and answers were thus:
1. Did you create us?
2. Are you God?
3. How did you find us?
We survey many planets looking for species on the cusp of sentient activity.
4. Will you stay after this is over?
5. Why did you do this?
To further scientific knowledge of sentient species and how they react to certain situations.
The rest of the questions were linked at the bottom of that page.
This was not satisfactory for us. We wanted to know the truth of the most basic questions of life, but all they gave us were one word answers. People tried to find the question field again, but it had been erased when the aliens left. The outernet never worked either.
In time, people returned to their religions and those who had looted were punished. The aliens fell from our pressing thoughts into memories that came back whenever we used the tablets they had given us. There was a short resurgence of aliens in popular culture when someone invented a globe-TV much like those that had hovered above our cities, but that was only for a short while. After that, we went back to complaining about junk food, except for a small minority who did not forget about the aliens. For them it remained a pressing issue. They spent their time dissecting the tablet to gain any insight into the alien technology, so that one day they could travel to their planet to ask them the questions to which they had given such unsatisfactory answers.
Matthew Fairchild lives in Southern California and is a recent graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chapman University. He has previously been published in Cardinal Sins, Rivet, and Halfway down the Stairs. He is also one of the Founding Editors of Anastamos Interdisciplinary Journal.