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Alien Offer

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"You are General James Rothwell?"

Rothwell sighed. "Yes, Commander Aku. We have met several times."

"Ah, yes. I recognize your insignia. Humans are so alike." The alien strode importantly across the office, the resilient pads of his broad feet making little plopping sounds on the rug, and seated himself abruptly in the visitor's chair beside Rothwell's desk. He gave a sharp cry, and another alien, shorter, but sporting similar, golden fur, stepped into the office and closed the door. Both wore simple, brown uniforms, without ornamentation.

"I am here," Aku said, "to tell you something." He stared impassively at Rothwell for a minute, his fur-covered, almost human face completely expressionless, then his gaze shifted to the window, to the hot runways of New York International Airport and to the immense gray spaceship that, even from the center of the field, loomed above the hangars and passenger buildings. For an instant, a quick, unguessable emotion clouded the wide black eyes and tightened the thin lips, then it was gone.

Rothwell waited.

"General, Earth's children must all be aboard my ships within one week. We will start to load on the sixth day, next Thursday." He stood.

The aliens supervised the loading as anguished parents looked on.

Rothwell locked eyes with the alien, and leaned forward, grinding his knuckles into the desk top. "You know that's impossible. We can't select 100,000 children from every country and assemble them in only six days."

"You will do it." The alien turned to leave.

"Commander Aku! Let me remind you ..."

Aku spun around, eyes flashing. "General Rothwell! Let me remind you that two weeks ago I didn't even know Earth existed, and since accidentally happening across your sun system and learning of your trouble I have had my entire trading fleet of a hundred ships in orbit about this planet while all your multitudinous political subdivisions have filled the air with talk and wrangle.

"I am sorry for Earth, but my allegiance is to my fleet and I cannot remain longer than seven more days and risk being caught up in your destruction. Now, either you accept my offer to evacuate as many humans as my ships will carry, or you don't." He paused. "You are the planet's evacuation coordinator; you will give me an answer."

Rothwell's arms sagged, he sunk back down into his chair, all pretense gone. Slowly he swung around to face the window and the gray ship, standing like a Gargantuan sundial counting the last days of Earth. He almost whispered. "We are choosing the children. They will be ready in six days."

He heard the door open and close. He was alone.

Five years ago, he thought, we cracked the secret of faster-than-light travel, and since then we've built about three dozen exploration ships and sent them out among the stars to see what they could see.

He stared blankly at the palms of his hand. I wonder what it was we expected to find?

We found that the galaxy was big, that there were a lot of stars, not so many planets, and practically no other life—at least no intelligence to compare with ours....