Better Than the Alternative
by Wondra Vanian
Dan wished he could finish just one shift on time. His first class the next day was scheduled to start at eight AM and he had a twenty-minute walk back to his dorm before he could put the finishing touches on a literary analysis of The Sorrows of Young Werther. That was after he stopped to pick up the things he’d need to repair the shelving unit his perpetually inebriated roommate had trashed the night before.
Who gets hammered on a Wednesday, anyway?
Five minutes. Dan’s shift officially ended five minutes ago. But there he was, needlessly cleaning the espresso machine’s portafilters again, just to have something to do with his hands that wasn’t snatching the cups out of the hands of the hipsters lingering at tables 6 and 7. The ones that just. Wouldn’t. Leave.
The group of thirty-somethings (who, by the way, had pushed their tables together without so much as a “Do you mind?”) had been arguing over everything from abortion reform to the newest Star Wars film for over four hours. Three of the seven still nursed the same mandatory cup of coffee required to make use of the shop’s WiFi they’d ordered when they first walked in.
Four hours ago.
Dan clenched his teeth against the urge to tell them to get the fuck out. Why, he wasn’t sure. It wasn’t as if a single one had dropped even a penny into the tip jar.
Because, dummy, he reminded himself, you need this job.
He did if he wanted to finish the semester without any student debt, anyway. Which, of course, Dan had to do if he wanted to take a year off after graduation to go travelling. That was the goal: survive college (hopefully without winding up penniless,) then see a bit of the world before he was forced to give in to the wife/job/mortgage tedium that would eventually kill him.
Twenty-three was far too young to be quite so cynical, but those were the times they lived in.
Gone were the days of old men sitting around chessboards complaining that the world was going to hell in a handbasket. The heavy burden of disappointment fell instead to the nation’s youth. It was the right of the young to complain that the future had been ruined by people who should have known better but who couldn’t look beyond their own prejudices (or wallets) to make the world a better place for the lives they had brought into it.
“The problem with young people these days,” his grandfather liked to complain, “is they have all these ideas about what the world should be but no way to fund it.”
Dan preferred to say, “Old people have all the money but no fucking idea.”
Family events were pretty strained at the Osbourne house.
Frustration made Dan slam a filter down with more force than necessary. It hit a mug and knocked it off the counter. The shattering of the mug made both tables of hipsters turn abruptly to stare in his direction. Cheeks burning, Dan did his best to ignore them as he cleaned up the mess he’d made.
Luckily, his little outburst had the herd of hipsters on their feet and heading for the exit faster than any of Dan’s exaggerated sighs or pointed looks at the over-sized wall clock had. Hmm. He’d have to remember that for the future…
“Thanks for visiting,” he called sarcastically as they hurried out. He dropped the dustpan he held and hurried to lock the doors, just in case any of them changed their minds. Then, he caught sight of their tables and groaned aloud. How could people who didn’t buy anything make such a mess?
It was a full forty-nine minutes past the end of his scheduled shift when Dan finally let himself out of the coffee shop. Locking up behind him, he hurried toward the hardware store. As he crossed the street, Dan thought again of his decision to leave his car behind at his parents’ house when he moved into the dorms. It had seemed the sensible, money-saving option at the time but, now, schlepping through the mushy, early-winter snow, Dan wished he had that old gas-guzzling clunker.
Head bowed against the cold wind, Dan didn’t see the shaft of light breaking the night until he was standing smack in the middle of it. Whether he’d walked blindly into it or it had descended upon him, Dan never knew. The how wasn’t as important as the what, anyway.
Caught in the immobilizing ray of light, Dan could only stare in astonishment as the snow-covered town dropped away below him. He saw the massive, brightly lit outline of the university and thought, I wonder who will wake Trey up for class tomorrow? His idiot roommate probably wouldn’t even notice Dan’s absence until he needed someone to borrow money off. Wonder how long his weed stash will last…
A wide, circular object loomed above Dan in the sky. He hung helplessly in the beam of light, pulled steadily toward the craft overhead. After what felt like an age–a long terrifying age–Dan was inside the strange vessel. The ray of light had vanished, but he still found it impossible to move; couldn’t even speak. Eyes wide, all he could do was watch as three aliens approached him.
To his surprise, the aliens looked exactly the way you’d expect an alien to look. Their heads were bulbous; their skin an unhealthy shade of grey. They had black pits for eyes and too-long extremities. Dan’s first thought upon seeing them was, Huh. The movies were right. His second was, Dammit, even aliens are a disappointment.
Irrationally, he noticed one held what appeared to be a metal clipboard.
The aliens conversed in a language Dan couldn’t understand–until one of them stuck a strange metallic object into his right ear.
Please don’t be a probe, he thought. Please don’t be a probe… please don’t-
After a piercing pain that left his ear stinging, Dan found he could understand the aliens perfectly. Well, not perfectly. It was like a movie where the original language and the dubbed track played simultaneously. Annoying, but bearable.
“Are you able to understand me?”
Dan started to nod–only to remember he couldn’t move. One of the aliens must have seen his struggle because they made a noise like a tut and pressed a button on the wall. He fell painfully to the floor. His shoulder was going to be one giant bruise but at least he was in control of his own body again. Not that it did him much good, being trapped in an alien spacecraft and all.
“I repeat,” the alien said, “are you able to understand me?”
“Yes,” Dan said, pushing himself unsteadily to his feet. It felt a little off, like standing on an airplane. The floor was solid enough, but part of his mind couldn’t let go of the fact that there was nothing but nothing past that floor.
His eyes felt nearly as wide as the aliens’ as Dan surveyed his surroundings. He was in a brightly lit, sterile room that reminded him of his doctor’s office. The curved walls appeared to be made up of doors leading to other rooms. Dan wished one of them were open so he could get a glimpse at the rest of the ship.
“Good. You, Earthling, are aboard Ship 1274 of the Flarvian Galactic Empire.”
He was far too busy gawking to pay much attention to the alien’s welcome speech. “Sure, sure…”
“You have been chosen to serve at the mercy of the Grand Galactic Emperor,” the alien continued. “You have been assigned to Planet 34, Sector 81 where you will perform whatever duties your Planetary Overseer demands of you.”
The third alien piped up. “Serve well and you will be treated well. Refuse to serve, and you will be terminated. At the completion of one Flarvian year, if you have fulfilled your duties satisfactorily, you will be permitted to return your home planet.”
Dan stared from one alien to the other. “Wait, what?”
The first alien seemed to sigh–though Dan wasn’t sure his (its?) species had the capacity for such a thing. It came out as an odd whistle-like wheeze. “You have been chosen to-”
Waving a hand, Dan dismissed the explanation. “No, I mean wow. That’s- hold on. There’s no probing involved, right?”
One of the aliens made a crude but accurate gesture of explanation that made the others laugh.
Huh, Dan thought. Aliens laugh just like us.
“No probing,” the first alien promised while the third rubbed its face with one long-fingered hand.
Dan thought it over a minute. “How long is a Flarvian year?”
“Roughly ten Earth years,” the third alien supplied.
He did the math. Two years left of Trump’s first term. Almost certainly another four after that. Longer, possibly. The wanna be dictator had broken every other law; it wasn’t outside the realms of possibility that he’d chuck term limits out the window too. Would performing manual labor on some alien planet really be better than living in a world where Donald Trump was president?
Sure, he’d lose ten years of his life but, hey, he’d always wanted to travel–and you can’t travel farther than space. Dan shrugged. “Okay,” he said.
All three of the aliens stopped to stare at him.
“Is his translator malfunctioning?” one alien said under its breath.
“This is where people usually start screaming,” another told Dan.
“Or throw things,” the other added.
The look Dan gave them was unimpressed. “You guys haven’t been to Earth lately, have you?”
They exchanged glances. “Well,” the third one said, “it has been awhile…”
Dan shook his head. “Trust me, your deal sounds pretty good compared to what we’ve got going on down there. Where do I sign up?”
A stunned looking alien handed Dan the metal clipboard.
Another day, another march. Amber was getting pretty damned tired of railing against the madness of the Trump administration without getting results. Hell, she was just tired, period. Not even out of university yet, and Amber was already sick of… well, everything. She just wanted to return to the sane world she was born into.
Or, better yet, a world that didn’t have a single Republican on it. Yeah, that would be good…
Amber was so lost in thought she almost ran into the old woman in front of her when the other woman stopped unexpectedly.
“Oh, my gosh!” Amber said quickly, “I’m so sor- What the hell is that?”
One of the pink-hatted women near Amber leaned over to say, “Can you see that?” in a low voice.
Wide-eyed, Amber glanced at her and nodded mutely.
“Oh, good,” she breathed. “After all the drugs I did back in the day, I was worried.”
Amber would have laughed if the situation hadn’t been so bizarre. She was kind of wondering if she’d accidentally ingested some drugs herself…
There, hovering above the large park they’d been marching toward, was what could only be an alien spaceship. No one was going to be pretending that was a weather balloon–it could have flown right off Mulder’s “I want to believe” poster.
Some of the protesters hung back warily. One or two ran screaming. Not Amber. She was among those who pushed forward to get a better view. The crowd gave a collected gasp when the ship’s door swung open and a ramp descended. They waited, breaths held, for an alien to appear.
It wasn’t an alien at all, only a human. The definitely-not-an-alien approaching them was a man about Amber’s age. He was dressed in the uniform of a popular coffee shop chain and he was smiling.
“Uh, hey,” he said awkwardly.
“Well,” one of Amber’s fellow marchers said, “that was a bit of an anti-climax.” People started to move away.
“Wait, hold on,” the man called to halt their departure. “So, uh, these guys were wondering if you wanted to come with them…”
Three aliens appeared behind the barista. Shocked gasps and exclamations ran through the crowd of protesters.
What’d’ya know, Amber thought, the movies were right.
The aliens making their way down the ramp looked exactly like you’d expect an alien to look–if you were a seven-year-old kid. She didn’t know what she’d been hoping for, but they weren’t it. Like everything else in Amber’s short life, aliens were a bit of a disappointment.
“Go?” someone shouted. “Go where?”
The barista shrugged. “Does it matter? It’s not here.”
A murmur ran through the crowd, then a handful of people started moving toward the ship.
“Dude! Are they going to probe us?” someone shouted from behind Amber.
The barista laughed while one of the aliens made a motion that made her laugh out loud. Turned out, aliens had mastered the facepalm…
“No probing,” the barista promised with a grin.
Amber was intrigued. It’s not here. When more people moved toward the ship, she was nearly among them. She wasn’t sure what held her back but when the barista looked at one of the aliens (who spoke to him in a language she couldn’t understand,) and added, “You can come back in, like, ten years–you know, if you want to,” she made her decision.
The aliens welcomed 1,372 people aboard their ship that day with the promise that they would return with a bigger one. Amber was Laborer #927. The whole warp-speed thing made her puke and the collar she was required to wear chaffed a bit, but they were minor inconveniences compared to what she’d left behind. The worst part was missing the final episode of Game of Thrones and, if the people aboard the seventh transport ship were to be believed, that wasn’t such a bad thing, after all.
Best part about her new life among the stars? There wasn’t a single Republican on the planet Amber worked growing something that resembled corn but sang in the light of the planet’s purple moon.
News of the aliens’ arrival spread quickly via social media, of course, but Trump and his supporters quickly dismissed the fantastic tale as “FAKE NEWS.” It was harder to ignore when another twelve ships appeared to accept more volunteers, sparking a nation-wide mass-exodus that finally gave Trump the unrestricted control he craved. The Americans left behind happily accepted his explanation that he’d convinced the aliens to rid them of the snowflakes.
Strangely enough, not a single volunteer ever chose to return to Earth when their sentences were up.