by DJ Burnham
forum: R.I.T.A.
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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        Simultaneously, every vidscreen, in every home, in every country on the surface of the planet blacked out. From global networks to local shopping channels, none were exempt. For five minutes, technicians the world over struggled to penetrate the transmission block, while frustrated viewers fiddled with ultra-tran optical connections and repeatedly made manual / automatic channel searches, before resorting to a short, sharp thump on the lids of their decoder boxes.

        When the screens flashed back to life, an identical picture appeared. No matter which channel had been on before, nowhere was the program as advertised. The content, however, was about to change the lives of the entire human population.

        Doug Mountjoy stared at the camera. The anchorman for GlobalCom News looked terrified, his face drained of colour, sweat running down off his forehead and onto the collar of his fresh white shirt.

        "Could you possibly introduce me, do you think?" came the polite, well-spoken male voice, from off-screen.

        "I... er... GlobalCom News..." The autocue was still blank, and nothing could have prepared him for this. His lips continued to move, but only a succession of rasping sounds escaped.

        "Go on, old chap, you can do it. Just say what I told you to say, eh?"

        Doug glanced worriedly at his hastily scribbled notes. His eyes flickered, nervously, towards the source of his encouragement. "People of Earth," he began, having loosened his tie and swallowed hard, "GlobalCom News has been chosen to broadcast an unprecedented event..."

        "That's the way! Carry on."

        Doug recovered his composure a little, "...an unprecedented event, in the history of our planet. A little over an hour ago, the offices of GlobalCom News were invaded by a—"

        "Not invaded! Let's say requisitioned, shall we?" came the perky interruption.

        "Our offices were 'Requisitioned' by a group who call themselves the R-I-T-A. The purpose of this action has, hitherto, remained a mystery. However, we understand the RITA have blocked every transmission on Earth, and replaced it with the live broadcast that you are currently watching. To quote from the era of classical television: 'Please do not attempt to adjust your sets'."

        "Nice touch."

        "Um, thank you," Doug replied, uncertainly. "I have here in the studio with me, the Commander-in-Chief of the RITA: Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to Xyton." Camera three pulled back. In front of the familiar GCN logo, Doug Mountjoy sat on the left-hand side of the newsdesk. To the right, the owner of the steady, cultured voice beamed happily at the camera. Xyton was resplendent in military uniform, an alien design, yet strangely familiar. The material shone titanium-white, with gold trim and ruby-coloured epaulets. His dark orange hair stuck out at an odd angle, from beneath his huge, blue-peaked black cap. Xyton's skin had a subtle green sheen to it, but apart from that he looked almost human; albeit a human with an extraordinarily large head. Beside him hung a ceremonial sword, studio lights glinting off the silver scabbard, and a golden hilt with gem-encrusted cage guard.

        "How do you do?" Xyton's face now filled the screen. "I would like to assure you that we mean no harm to your people. However, as anticipated, we have encountered some resistance. We apologise in advance for the display you are about to witness, and for the regrettable demise of a few, very brave individuals, who are currently attempting to prevent our access to this studio's transmission." The sound of gun fire could be heard in the background. "Please refrain from sending any more troops, to what would be their, almost certain, death. As you will shortly see, such actions would be entirely futile, indeed, rather unfortunate in the circumstances."

        A new camera angle appeared, and it took the bewildered humans a few moments to realise that were looking at an aerial view of Lake Erie.

        The Commander provided a voice-over, "This is a real-time transmission from one of our ships, which is in an advanced geostationary orbit above your planet. We have selected this expanse of water, in order to provide you with a little demonstration." The picture returned to the studio, as Xyton turned to one of his cohorts and said, "Please ask our Tactical Weapons Officer to charge one of the low-power pulse cannons and to await my command."

        "Yessir," came the disciplined response, as the picture returned to the dizzying view of the lake.

        "You see, not only do we have the ability to take control of your global broadcasting network, and to project a simulcast across the face of your planet, we also have the power to do this. FIRE!" Fear gripped every soul watching, as the entire lake evaporated within seconds. The picture switched back to the studio again. "What do you think of that then, eh?" said Xyton, proudly. Doug Mountjoy was staring at his monitor in disbelief, as the Commander continued, "Pretty good show, I'd say. Even our ships' most basic weapons are tuned for molecular sensitivity. If your experts were to investigate the floor of this area, they would find that absolutely no damage had been done to the underlying rock structure. As for the water itself, that has formed an immense cloud over what you call Ohio and Pennsylvania. I'm afraid that it would rain for days on end, causing terrible storms, flooding and hardship, wherever it fell. Such would be the impact of suddenly displacing such a massive quantity of water. However, we have no intention of causing you any unnecessary harm. FIRE!" This time the weapon focused on the lake-cloud. With superb control, the swirling mass of condensing water was directed back down to Earth and—apart from wrecking a few boats and stunning a variety of wildlife—Lake Erie was gently recreated, with barely a ripple.

        "You cannot do this to us! What right have you to come here? We will blow you out of the sky!" Doug's outburst caught the Commander by surprise, and echoed the feelings that erupted in most of the global audience. Outrage was laced with indignation, but they were equally fearful of confronting the impotence of their situation.

        "My dear chap," said Xyton, soothingly, "even our most basic ship outguns your entire planet by a billion to one. We really don't want to get involved in the ghastly business of conflict, especially in what would inevitably be such a one-sided affair. After all, we'd be damaging some prime real estate." He looked directly into the camera. "We would like you to consider yourselves as both tenants and operatives on our behalf."

        "Tenants?" Doug managed to ask, weakly.

        "Dear, dear, dear, how tiresome," said Xyton, as another skirmish broke out, this time at the edge of the studio itself. The floor manager was accidentally caught in the crossfire, as the last of the human troops were effortlessly countered. Doug watched, uncomfortably, as pieces of his former colleague slid down the wall to his right.

        "Jgikloran, you idiotic Throogain pack-mule! How many times? Set the pulveriser on stun, not splatter, you fool!"

        "Yessir, sorry, Sir. This human-form H-S-S-S. is extremely difficult to function in. These finger appendages make fire-arm operation a bit tricky for me, Sir." He added, sheepishly.

        "Everyone else seems to be managing. Do you want to find yourself scrubbing out the ship's latrines?" Xyton shouted.

        "No, Sir. It won't happen again, Sir."

        "Good grief." Xyton turned back to address the GlobalCom News anchorman. "Now then, where were we ?" A section of human colon landed on the desk between them. Xyton unsheathed his sword.

        "No, no, please, have mercy," Doug pushed himself back into his executive chair.

        The Commander's blade flicked the offending offal from the surface of the desk, and onto the floor. Resheathing his ceremonial sword, he gave the cowering man a placatory smile. "Don't worry, old chap. No-one else on your planet need die or suffer. I can only offer my most profuse apologies for the incompetence of that imbecile," he gestured towards Jgikloran, who shuffled about as the tips of his ears went turquoise. "I think it's time for me to converse with the President of the Earth Senate before anything else distasteful occurs. Prior to this broadcast we requested that he should enter the Senate HQ studio room. Do you know if he might be available for a little chat?"

        "I'll find out," Doug fiddled with his earpiece and was rewarded with confirmation from the GCN control booth. "I have the President for you, Commander Xyton."

        "Splendid," Xyton was visibly delighted and leant forward to whisper to Doug, "Take me to your leader, eh?" He winked at the anchorman and attempted what he considered to be the appropriate form of laughter. It fell on stony ground. "Ah, hmmm. No matter."

        The President's anxious face came up on the screen. Barely an hour ago he'd been tucked up in bed, slumbering under the effects of the tranquillisers that his personal physician had given him to allay the worries and stresses of office, following the collapse of the talks on global unification. The Earth Senate had only been in existence for two months. Many of the countries which it supposedly represented were not so much members, as more on an unofficial wish list. They could have no way of knowing just how aware the aliens were of their situation. It would be a bluff of power-play tactics.

        As the stimulants surged through his veins, to counteract the tranquillisers, the newly-elected President of the Earth Senate was as jittery as any human could be; even back in the days when coffee was still legal. The Central Senate (the power base of the Earth Senate) had needed a well-known spokesman, someone that people would recognise, but overall someone who had no potentially damaging opinions of their own, someone who could be moulded. There'd been precious little opportunity for briefing, and Sam Walker was used to having a script. His earpiece was connected to the entire board of the Central Senate. Hopefully they would be able to feed him some of his lines. The world was watching, and what happened next would be critical.

        "Mr. President, how marvellous to have this opportunity to discuss my proposal with you," Xyton grinned.

        "Indeed, Commander. May I be assured that you have no further plans for any more demonstrations?" asked the President.

        "Of course, of course. It is my intention to conduct these proceedings in as genial a manner as possible."

        "I'm pleased to hear it, but I must tell you that by entering the premises of GlobalCom News illegally you have violated the law."

        "Er, right, oh, dear, sorry about that." Xyton was momentarily caught off-guard, surprised that Earth's representative would utter such a banal tautology. "Shall we proceed?"

        "Uh huh. So... what d'you want?"

        "Ah, good, straight to the point, eh? We have given you the name of our organisation, in a close approximation to its meaning in your language. RITA stands for the "Radical Intergalactic Travel Agency'."

        "Travel agency?" blurted the President, somewhat taken aback.

        "Indeed, and this superb planet of yours will make an ideal holiday destination. It is a jewel in this sector, and has the most extraordinary potential in the galactic tourism market."

        A voice whispered into Walker's earpiece, "Keep him talking!" Cautiously, he replied to Xyton, "I'm sorry, Commander. You've lost me. Could you explain in more detail, please, so that I can more better respondulate?"

        Before he could reply, Jgikloran marched up to him. "Sir. An attempt has been made on our ship!"

        "An attempt? You mean they've actually tried to attack us?" he asked, incredulously. "Do you know about this?" Xyton demanded of the President.

        Twelve voices screamed, unintelligibly, into his earpiece. "Yeah." he replied, quietly, already aware of the outcome from the display on his personal strategic monitor.

        "President Walker, I must admit to being more than a little disappointed in you. Having witnessed our demonstration you must have been aware of the impossibility of success in any form of retaliation. I assume that you know what happened?"

        "I do, yes," he tugged the squealing earpiece out and let it dangle over his shoulder. "You gotta understand, we had to give our nukular warheads a go." The President watched the main vidscreen as it changed to a broadcast from Fleet Command ship. The replay showed the warheads targeting the alien ship, and their subsequent atomisation by its pulse cannons. The missiles had barely left the Earth's atmosphere.

        The Commander-in-Chief of the RITA reappeared on the screen. "So, what would you do now if you were in my position, Mr Walker?" Xyton purposely dropped the Presidential title, adding to the threatening overtone of his question.

        "Er, well, I can only speak to myself, but I guess that I'd consider making another demonstration of my invincibility, if I were to find myself sitting in your current position, just where you are about now with all options firmly under the table." Sam replied, trying to conceal the tremor in his voice, painfully aware that he might have just sentenced hundreds, if not thousands, of his fellow humans to death, as they clustered around vidscreens in their billions.

        "That is a frank and honest reply, Mr. President," said Xyton, tactfully reinstating formalities, whilst trying to work out what he'd just said. "I trust that we may now conduct our discussion in an equally frank and honest manner?" He had the upper hand and the point had been made. "As for another demonstration..." he let it hang in the air as the residents of the Earth collectively held their breath, "...I believe that our neutralisation of your somewhat puny slings and arrows has achieved that objective. Would you concur?"

        "Absolutely! Whatever's in the past is over." Sam Walker visibly slumped, both from relief and despair. Key members of the Central Senate, crowded into the HQ studio doorway, could almost hear the global stock market crashing. Sam spoke up again, "Could I ask just one thing of you?"

        "Please, feel free," the Commander had returned to his previously congenial manner. "Let's see if I can accommodate you," he smiled, magnanimously.

        "Can I take it, from the previous comment that one of your troops made earlier, that we ain't seeing you in your true form? He said something about a human-form H-S-S-S thing?"

        "The Holographic Shell Suit-shield, that is correct, as is your assumption about our form. Why do you ask?"

        "If we are to enter into productive discourse I think we should know precisely with whom it is that we are dealing." The Central Senate looked at each other, aghast. Where had this sudden streak of candid diplomacy sprung from? "After all, I don't want you alien guys misunderestimating me!" They relaxed again.

        Xyton laughed. "I see. I must warn you that many of your species may find it somewhat distressing to see me in my...how did you put it? Ah yes, 'True form.' I had not envisaged this situation occurring at such an early stage of our relationship."

        "Nevertheless, if we're gonna be interfacing with each other."

        "Very well. I recommend that if any human watching this broadcast is of an especially sensitive nature, then they should turn away for the duration of my revealment."

        "So... er... you're green men from outer space?" asked Sam, returning to more familiar form.

        "Not so much green as, lemon yellow." Xyton turned to Jgikloran, "Wouldn't you say?"

        "Yessir, lemon yellow, Sir. Possibly with a hint of gold, if I may be so bold."

        Xyton laughed again, "Indeed you may, indeed you may." He turned back to the expectant face on the vidscreen. "We shall provide you with some music, to put you at your ease. Our research into your perception of alien encounters has predominantly involved cinematographic records, and it is from these that we have chosen a piece of music which we trust will be evocative of the experience and, hopefully, match your expectations. Its duration will also serve to indicate the period in which some humans may prefer to avert their gaze."

        The sound of Clara Rockmore playing "Valse Sentimentale" by Tchaikovsky filled the air. Doug Mountjoy found himself with a knowing smile on his face, despite himself. The President, however, looked utterly bewildered; a frequently used expression, in his case.

        Jgikloran dragged a wide metallic disc, with upturned edges, on the floor in front of the newsdesk. Xyton stepped onto it. Jgikloran bent down, pressed a sequence of panels on the side of the disc, and then stood back. The Holographic Shell Suit-shield disengaged.

        Sam Walker managed to mutter under his breath, "Oh, sweet baby Jesus!"

        The alien stood three metres tall, four elephantine legs supporting its ovoid body. Six upper limbs extended and contracted; nightmarish pseudopodia issuing from slitted pockets in a black, glistening uniform. Its head resembled a precariously balanced doughnut tossed onto the top of an egg. Hundreds of rapidly blinking eyes stared out from the circumference of the gently-rocking toroid. Where its glowing skin was uncovered, gold swirled with cadmium yellow, and mustard with lemon, flowing about each other like a fuel spill on water. As the seduced camera focused in on the beauty of that display, it revealed a greater horror. Xyton's skin wriggled and writhed; the alien's flesh crept!

        All of the eyes in a ninety-degree arc focused on a nearby monitor. A familiar voice drowned out the music of the theramin, and addressed the screen. "I have been speaking to you through a vocalator, situated just below what you would refer to as my head. What you are seeing on your screens is a symbiotic relationship between Ikthoovians, our species, and Skolexians—similar to your annelids. As a species, we Ikthoovians are unable to control our body temperature, but Skolexians can absorb extremes of both. If it is too hot, then they cool our body fluids, and the reverse if we are in a cold climate. Without them, even the most minimal variation from our ideal environmental temperature would throw our systems into cascading hyper- or hypothermia. They are also omnirobic, which is to say that no matter which combination of gases I inhale these creatures will absorb them and release the correct balance of nitrogen, sulphur and hydrogen back into my body fluids; also compensating for any lack of gases in a given atmosphere by releasing their own reserves. Handy little fellows, don't you think?"

        The human occupants of GlobalCom News studio were transfixed, akin to a small circle of rabbits caught in a car's headlights. These nightmarishly alien creatures held their lives in the balance, and their future in their hands; that they would be their masters was an inescapable certainty.

        On a signal from Xyton, Jgikloran leapt forward to reengage the HSSS, and once the Commander's appearance had reestablished itself into human form he stepped off the platform. Jgikloran activated another panel on the side of the disc and it performed a miraculous act of origami, folding in upon itself repeatedly, until it was small enough for him to pick it up and pop it into a pocket on the arm of his combat jacket.

        "Are you satisfied, Mr. President?" Xyton asked, as he retook his seat opposite Doug Mountjoy.

        It took a moment for Sam to compose himself, before he replied, "I am. Can you advisorate me on your known intentions and your unknown ones, as far as we're concerned?" he managed, still feeling numb from the shock of seeing the real Ikthoovian.

        "Indeed. Well now, as I said previously, we operate a travel agency and your planet has the most superb potential."

        "It does?"

        "You have an atmosphere that is really quite agreeable to a wide range of visitors, as well as having a variety of climates and environments which can be matched to individual species. Having deserts and water in substantial quantities is also a tremendous asset, as these are sought-after features in the off-world leisure industry. You also have sufficient historical and contemporary culture to keep your guests amused, as well as a healthy attitude to the opportunities afforded by commercial enterprise. Naturally, there will be a few sacrifices along the way—"

        "What? That's barbaric!" exclaimed the President, visibly shocked.

        "Not human sacrifices! Goodness me, what do you take us for—unless, of course, you insist?" The sarcastic tone in his voice and the sly grin gave him away. "No, no. You will simply have to forfeit a few conveniences which, quite frankly, you will have to learn to live without at some point in the future anyway."

        The President of the Earth Senate had fallen quiet. The GCN anchorman stepped in, "Commander, I am sure that I will be voicing the concerns of all of our viewers when I ask. Precisely what do you mean by that?"

        "Ah, Mr. Mountjoy, how lovely to have you join in with us." Xyton swivelled to face him, pulled a document from the inside pocket of his uniform, and unrolled it, before facing the camera. "We will not accept any action, or activity, which threatens to damage our investment, either in the immediate or long term future. We know that, as a species, you are well aware of the fact that many of your so-called advances are putting a considerable strain on your delightful biosphere. Within one Earth year no discharge of pollutants or nonbiodegradable waste products into the air, seas, rivers or soil will be permitted. Similarly, no acts of war or violence shall be sanctioned. Any attempt at the modification or manipulation of the genetic structure of any living organism is henceforth forbidden. No animal shall be killed for any purpose other than consumption, and that shall be carried out under strict guidelines. Special programs will be initiated to maintain rare species and to help them to flourish, because the greater the biodiversity, the greater the interest from off-world tourists. Certain regions of your planet will be out-of-bounds, except for those directly involved in the tourist service industry. Any reports of anti-tourist behaviour, from species-specific racism to sabotage, will be dealt with in a zero-tolerance manner. Anyone found to be in contravention of these regulations will be transferred to an off-world penal colony."

        "That's impossible," said the President, who had been made to replace his earpiece while the camera focused on Xyton. "We cannot agree to the alienization of our world and just stand idly by, not doing nuthin'."

        "My dear chap, I am not seeking your agreement. I am telling you how it will be. We have no wish to plunge humans back into their Dark Ages, merely to protect and nurture our assets. We can show you a new way forward. Means of transport with zero-harmful emissions, industry without pollution, consumption without waste and negotiation without conflict. As managing directors of the E-R-F, we will bring you benefits that you can hardly begin to imagine."

        "This all sounds too good to be true in principle, but impossible to realise. We can't manage without planes and cars and trains and factories. How are we to defend ourselves against rogue dictators and acts of terrorism? How can there be progress without scientific research? How can our world survive if the financial infrastructure collapses?" Sam repeated the words as they came to his ear, but added something of his own, "What's the E-R-F anyhow?"

        "I think you've missed the point, Mr. President. Fossil fuels not only damage the atmosphere, but have also kept global power in the hands of a minority group. You happen to be part of the privileged few, but it's only a temporary position. Those fuels will, ultimately, be exhausted, but by then the biospheric damage will have been catastrophic. An uneven balance of power is a recipe for conflict, and one that we've encountered many, many times before. Equality is the key, Sam Walker, and with it comes peace. Most individuals I've met, of whatever species we have encountered, have wanted peace. We have found that the elimination of aggressors is always for the greater good, be that by financial or physical means. As a species you have extraordinary potential, and we will help you to achieve it. In one year's time you will be living in paradise. As for financial considerations, there will be a huge growth in alien facility servicing contracts and associated freight cargo management. Within a few years you will be trading directly with other planets, and many of you will have the opportunity for off-world leisure experiences of your own. I shall ensure that our new brochure is made available to all humans at the earliest opportunity." Xyton smiled reassuringly to camera, before addressing the President again. "This is going to happen, Sam, and you can be a part of it. A very important part, in fact." The Commander-in-Chief of the RITA was about to play his trump card. "The ERF stands for the Earth Resort Facility, of which the Ikthoovians are self-appointed managing directors. We would like to offer you, Mr. President, the position of Chief Human In Management Protocol." Xyton smiled triumphantly. He'd sized the President up and cut the cloth to fit.

        Sam Walker had no idea what management protocol was but the chief human part sounded mighty good. "You mean I'd be in charge of running the whole planet? Head Honcho?" he asked, excitedly.

        "We would be in charge of the planet, but you, Mr. President—or should I say Chief?—would be our top dog, our Earthly representative. As you put it, Head Honcho, chief of the squad." Xyton waited to see what would happen. He'd played this game countless times before.

        The Central Senate knew that what was on the table would instantly force the more recalcitrant nations into their dream of global unification. The Earth Senate would become a reality if Walker played along. By the way he was bouncing up and down on his chair, he shouldn't be too difficult to persuade. They whispered into his earpiece one more time.

        "Hell, life'll be a heck of a lot easier round here with just one person in charge, and even easier for me if that one person is me in the first place. I accept, Xyton!" he roared.

        "Excellent. You are now, officially, the Chief Human In Management Protocol. Congratulations. I shall come to visit you later today and we can begin to work on our plans for a fruitful relationship."

        The vidscreens around the world returned to their scheduled broadcasts, although these were soon to be interrupted once more by a frenzy of news reports and updates.

        The Chief Human In Management Protocol leant back in his chair with a smug grin on his face. He ruled the Earth. It was all he'd ever dreamt of and with the most powerful ally imaginable.

        Several months passed before anyone dared to draw the attention of the recently appointed Chief Human In Management Protocol, of the Earth Resort Facility, to the glaring acronym of his title.

copyright 2006 DJ Burnham.

DJ Burnham has had a lifelong love of Science Fiction. Having recently retired from an exciting sideline in concert promotion for the likes of Roy and Nick Harper, he has found time to pen some stories of his own, many of which have appeared in webzines such as Silverthought, Bewildering Stories and Aphelion. With a full-length novel in the pipeline, he also writes poetry and creates original decoupage-style artwork. DJ Burnham lives in Brighton, England with his wife Sue and their cat. He is a Health Service worker by day and a dreamer by night.

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