The huge alien vessel was spotted weeks before, prowling around the moon. All attempts at communication were unsuccessful. Then, the ship entered a low orbit over Earth, and sent down a small craft. Easily evading the airplanes sent to escort it, the vessel landed on the broad plaza at the UN building in New York.
The strange vehicle, less a saucer than a half-melted crystal ball, settled quietly in front of the great edifice. Two aliens exited and, ignoring the attempts of various reporters and officials at communication, walked into the main hall. The were bipedal, roughly humanoid, but thin to the point of gauntness and apparently naked. Major diplomats hurried to take part in the welcoming of the visitors from the stars, or frantically called their superiors for advice on policy in this situation. The aliens, however, gave them no time.
They ascended directly to the podium, one of them approaching the microphones, leaning down slightly to come close enough. The room fell silent.
"We do not normally communicate with immature societies," it said, shrilling something in its own voice and language, which a small device around its neck repeated in perfect English. "However, we need some information which we have not been able to gather for ourselves. What has happened to the society which left the artifacts of exploration on your satellite?"
"That's us!" cried the US representative, standing and waving his arms in a most unprofessional way.
"No, it is not," the alien said. "We have performed an initial analysis of your society, and while it has great potential it does not possess the drive, motivation and technical infrastructure to perform the feat of sending living explorers to your moon. Such an exploration effort is the major prerequisite for membership in our civilization."
"Ah, well," hemmed and hawed the representative. "Once we had seen what was there, we decided to concentrate on more important things."
The alien jerked upright as if physically pained, then slowly lowered its head again.
"What could possibly be more important than the exploration of the universe?"
"Well, there's poverty, hunger, war, racial inequality...."
"But the best solutions for such problems are derived from the benefits of space exploration!" The alien seemed quite bewildered. "It is the diversion of individual and collective attention to larger concerns that stimulates a willingness to discard unworkable techniques and accept workable ones. The fact that you still have the problems you mentioned should be evidence enough that the path you have chosen is mistaken."
There was a stir among the delegates. The ambassador from the Russian Federation stood.
"We have not abandoned space exploration," he announced. "In spite of our recent troubles, we have persevered. Our efforts have been less dramatic than those of the Americans, but they have been more steady."
"Your space station is an excellent first step, but inadequate to qualify you for membership in our society."
"What about the Space Shuttle?" countered the American.
"That is a utility vehicle, too limited for direct exploration," the alien replied. "Though it could easily be used to place the proper tools in orbit, you have not done this."
"But what about Pioneer!" the American ambassador countered desperately. "Voyager! Uh, uh..."
"Viking," whispered one of his aides, a space buff.
"Those are also important first steps," the alien told him, "but personal visits are the obvious follow on. You have stagnated, even gone backwards. What happened?"
"I believe I can explain it, sir," the same aide whispered to his superior.
Normal procedure called for the aide to brief the ambassador quickly and quietly, and for the ambassador to then deliver the information himself. In this case, the ambassador was so rattled that he simply waved the young man ahead.
"About thirty years ago, we mistakenly choose a leader who sacrificed the space program then underway to further his own ends," the aide began. "We eventually got rid of him, but our leaders since then have lacked the drive and vision to do more than make minor attempts to repair the damage done. In many cases they have actually hindered private efforts, so that they don't make the official space program look bad."
The reaction of the ambassador and the rest of his staff approached collective apoplexy. The ambassador sputtered, mouth working and face red, but could neither stand nor speak.
"Fascinating," murmured the alien. "In every other case on record, the society approaching the leap into space either failed or succeeded. You, instead, succeeded, then quit just as you were getting started. Unbelievable."
"They are still in the cult-following stage!" exclaimed the second alien, until then silent. "Yet they have advanced technology!"
"That is impossible," the first alien replied, both of them apparently forgetting about their translators. "A species which had technology, and which also still blindly followed whatever charismatic individual gained power would be completely unpredictable. It could just as easily destroy itself in a paroxysm of violence or conquer the universe!"
There was a long moment of silence from the aliens, as they stared at each other. Then, with a double wail, they fled from the building, heedless of any attempt to stop them. They hurried back to their craft, which lifted into the skies and vanished. Less than an hour later, the main vessel left Earth orbit at an acceleration which few of the scientists analyzing the data believed.
This document is Copyright 1999 to Rodford Edmiston Smith, who can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org by those seeking permission to repost this story.