The Gift

The alien spaceship is less than one million miles from Earth. Three aliens are seated in the cockpit, looking through the large horizontal window as they approach the planet. Above the window a large display screen shows a close up view of New York City, from Times Square over to the East River. The aliens are pushing buttons and switches on the control panel below the window.

When Billy Hanson awoke that fateful Monday, his parents and little sister were still asleep. He looked around the hotel room where they were staying in New York City. Today was Billy’s twelfth birthday, and he wondered what birthday presents he would get.

After breakfast they all wandered through Times Square for an hour and then took a taxi to the United Nations. As they walked through the crowded plaza outside, Billy paused, lagging behind his family and cocking his head to one side. In the distance he thought he heard a strange sound.

Up until 11:21 AM that morning, there had been nothing unusual in the turbulent activity of New York City. Then, there was a puzzling noise from above. Suddenly a spaceship dove into sight near the Statue of Liberty, zipped up the East River, and cut west to the UN Plaza. Billy heard the squeal of brakes and crunch of metal as a limousine rear-ended a van whose driver had stopped abruptly to watch.

Within seconds, the ship settled to the ground just a few paces from the Hansons, and a door opened to reveal a robot holding a small package. Other people in the area backed away in apprehension. In a nearby police car, an officer reaching for his radio microphone spilled hot coffee in his lap.

Gliding forward a few meters, the robot silently offered the package to Billy and then placed it directly into his hands. “A birthday gift for me?” thought Billy. His parents and sister retreated, and his mother began calling his name frantically. People standing up to twenty feet away could see that the package was a small black box with a large red button.

A booming synthetic voice emanated from the robot: “I give you the gift of automation. If you push the red button, all the factories of Earth will run automatically.” Then the robot reentered the ship, and it departed as quickly as it had come. Billy looked up at the sky and down at the box he was holding. His finger edged towards the button.

Two police officers ran forward. One grabbed the box away from Billy while the other roughly pulled him backwards. “Hey!” shouted Billy’s mother. “Let go of him!” His father rushed to intervene.

“Keep back,” the first policeman yelled, placing the black box on the ground gently. “It could be a bomb!”

“Bomb!” The word rippled through the crowd. “Atom bomb!” Everyone froze. The Hansons looked around them. A few people started moving slowly toward the exit gates. Suddenly, there was a mad stampede to get away. Nine people were injured, one seriously.

The Hansons and the two police officers were left alone in the center of the plaza. The box continued to sit inertly on the pavement in front of them.

Within three minutes, fragmentary reports were being spread through radio and television. Shortly after noon, regular TV programming was suspended, as the networks began interviewing scientists and politicians with differing opinions about the significance of the event. One million dollars was reported to have been paid by one TV network for a video tape made by a tourist from Ohio who had filmed the events.

A few minutes after the incident, Billy watched as the police cordoned off a fifty foot radius around his box. Because of the traffic, the bomb squad arrived by helicopter. After cautiously determining that the box weighed only a few pounds, the experts quickly decided to transport it by helicopter to a remote location on Long Island. At this point, a curtain of secrecy descended on the operation, and it became impossible to obtain accurate information.

The Hansons were escorted into the UN building, where more police were arriving. They set up an emergency control center. There was a barrage of repetitive questioning from a sequence of detectives. “Well, you must be Billy Hanson. How old are you? Twelve? Enjoying New York? Can you describe the robot?” When Billy’s sister complained that she was hungry, sandwiches were brought from the cafeteria, enough to feed a small country. In the distance they could hear helicopters and the mounting din of traffic noises.

In the evening they were brought by police cruiser to a suburban hotel, rather than the one where they had been staying in the city. Billy was surprised to see that all their suitcases were already there.

Until his Dad turned on the television in the room, Billy didn’t know about the unprecedented crush that had descended that afternoon on New York City’s railroad stations and parking garages as people rushed to leave the city. By one o’clock in the afternoon, there was complete gridlock throughout the streets. Crazed motorists were actually careening along the sidewalks. By evening, nevertheless, the midtown area had been almost completely evacuated, while police supervised the towing of hundreds of abandoned and wrecked vehicles. It was later discovered that someone had taken advantage of the confusion by burglarizing most of the offices between the 11th and 17th floors of the Empire State Building.

Billy stayed up late watching TV. It showed an “End of the World” party that broke out spontaneously in Las Vegas. Copycat parties spread through San Francisco and Berkeley, the latter one lasting five chaotic days and nights and resulting in scores of arrests for alcohol, drugs, and indecent behavior.

The following morning his whole family was subjected to a new round of questioning, this time by the FBI. Around noon Billy got a phone call from the President of the United States, praising his bravery. When Billy asked when he could have his box back, the President laughed and said not yet.

In a televised speech from the Oval Office that afternoon, the President reassured his fellow Americans that the situation was completely under control. After reviewing events of the preceding day, he revealed that the mysterious black box had been transported to a secret government laboratory in a remote area far from all population centers. He said that a group of renowned scientists had begun to study the box. Although he didn’t know how long this analysis would take, he urged a return to normalcy in the meantime. He assured allies and adversaries alike that they would be kept fully informed. He extended his sincere sympathy and “heartfelt condolences” to the families of the scores of dead, injured, and missing during the preceding 24 hours of panic. Then he debunked the rumor that the box was a hostile threat. He pointed out that if it were some sort of weapon, it would have been much more effective to drop it on us unaware. He concluded on a positive note by joining the press speculation that the spacecraft was from an advanced benevolent civilization in outer space, whose gift could enormously benefit mankind.

In answer to reporters’ questions, the White House Press Secretary said that the President was praying for divine guidance, that he urged others to pray, and that he would not at this time be traveling to the laboratory personally to inspect the box himself.

Billy and his family appeared on three major network news programs the next day. Mr. Hanson indicated his belief that the box was intended solely for his son. “It was his twelfth birthday,” he said. “This is not a coincidence.” Also on TV was the Secretary-General of the United Nations, emphasizing that the box had deliberately been placed on UN ground, which was legally outside the sovereign territory of the United States. The action of the New York police in removing the box was therefore illegal, and he respectfully demanded its return.

A Spanish language radio station reported that the police officer who took the box from Billy was Latino, whose bravery should be recognized as heroic. Meanwhile, after reviewing the video, the director of the Office of Child Protective Services felt that the officer had been unnecessarily rough and initiated a quiet investigation of the officer’s family life.

The following day, the Hansons were flown to Washington to meet the President at the White House. A photographer took lots of pictures. “When can I have my box back?” asked Billy. “Not yet,” said the President. The next day front pages of all the newspapers showed Billy shaking hands with the President.

Special religious services were scheduled throughout the world as the devout prayed for guidance and deliverance. There were frequent references to Armageddon and the visions of Isaiah. After a reported miracle cure, police set up barriers to control the stream of pilgrims coming to visit the sacred site. Unfortunately, most of them paused reverently at the wrong location, a scorched spot twenty feet away, where a homeless man had burned some garbage the previous winter.

There was no way for Billy to know that the black box had been brought to a military base in New Mexico. Initial tests established that the box was not radioactive, and it had no germs or viruses. Spectroscopic analysis revealed that the surface material was a crystalline polycarbonate, hitherto unknown. An attempt to scratch it with a diamond was unsuccessful. X-ray, MRI, and PET analysis of the interior showed no detail whatsoever. There was no apparent way to open the box, and the scientific panel was split on the advisability of trying to cut it with a laser, for fear of destroying its function, or worse.

A government plane ferried Billy and his family back to their home, where police set up 24-hour security patrols. On their first day back, the Hansons had to evacuate their house two times because of crank threatening calls. Their local minister defended them against assertions that they were devil worshipers.

At the end of the first week, the leading American trade unions issued a joint statement stressing the contributions made by working people throughout history and dismissing as ludicrous the notion that automation could ever completely supplant human labor. In a surge of neo-Luddite pride, a parade down Fifth Avenue carried coffins containing the four fundamental machines: the wheel, the lever, the screw, and the inclined plane. The Mayor led the parade.

By contrast, economists took a generally favorable position on automation but noted that complete factory automation would result in an immediate unemployment rate of about 30%. They were widely split on the feasibility of income redistribution in a society with such a high unemployment rate.

Billy watched in fascination as TV programs displayed the latest generations of industrial and research robots. During an interview, an MIT professor asserted that with sufficient funding he could develop a similar box in 5 years. A Stanford professor labeled that claim as preposterous. On the Tonight Show, Jay Leno joked about robot teachers in diploma mills. The state radio of Libya asserted that the entire incident was fabricated by the satanic forces of international imperialism. Three foreign nationals were arrested by the FBI in the desert near Alamogordo after their car was stopped by a trooper and found to contain sophisticated electronic eavesdropping equipment.

By this time, the National Security Agency had met several times to analyze the latest international intelligence reports. They were looking for evidence of suspicious precursors to the incident as well as unusual subsequent activities. Considerable attention was focused on a group of OPEC delegates who had met secretly two days before the incident to discuss an oil boycott with the purpose of halting American factories. The NSA ordered the construction of a limited number of replica black boxes for contingency use.

For the next two months, Billy wondered what the scientific panel was doing. Then a draft report was leaked to the press. It said it was highly unlikely that the material had been made in Japan, and inconceivable that it had been made anywhere else on Earth. The isotopic composition was consistent with extraterrestrial origin, but nothing further could be learned without potentially destructive tests. There was speculation that the box could be either genuine or a hoax. The possibility was raised that it could represent a grand psychological experiment to test the collective intelligence of humanity, perhaps as a precursor to invasion. It was agreed that if the box were genuine, it would have to depend on hitherto unknown physical phenomena to work. The report raised questions about the source of energy and the danger that, once started, the automation might prove unstoppable, like the sorcerer’s apprentice.

The panel also studied video tapes and physical evidence surrounding the spaceship. No known method of propulsion could account for the dramatic accelerations, the lack of residual radiation, and the complete absence of a sonic boom. No evidence of the spacecraft was found on photographic plates from terrestrial telescopes or in electronic records of orbiting observatories. It had also eluded detection by all FAA and early warning radars.

Several prominent environmentalists pointed to toxic emissions from existing factories and the need to remedy these problems before pushing the button. Pacifists spoke of the risks of continued production of weapons. A leading science fiction writer warned of a Garden of Eden syndrome in which mankind would lose its ambition in a fully automated world. The Chairman of the Board of a leading US car company came under fire from various minority leaders for expressing an opinion that could be construed as racist.

At a press conference, the Hansons revealed their intention to file suit in Federal Court to have the box returned to their son. They expressed conviction that Billy was the only person able to actuate the button. They also disclosed that they were negotiating contracts for a book and a movie.

An assortment of inconsistent but supposedly factual headlines appeared on the tabloids: Black Box Contains Deadly Virus! Black Box Contains Black Hole! Black Box Talks! Black Box Growing Larger! Leading Psychic Predicted Event! Billy Hanson’s Grandmother an Alien! The British royal family privately expressed delight that the tabloids seemed to have completely forgotten about them.

Nearly a quarter of Billy’s classmates stayed home from school. Some parents expressed concern for their children’s health. Pickets outside his school carried placards protesting the UN, big government, abortion, gun control, and secular humanism.

The UN Security Council met in extraordinary session. After nearly two weeks of deliberation, there were two vetoes and three abstentions on a vote to transfer ownership of the box to the UN. This led to a meeting of the General Assembly, in which several speakers from the Third World castigated the US for planning to use the box to perpetuate the status quo. Others were equally critical of the US for not having already used the box to remedy the status quo.

The hottest selling children’s toys became spacecraft kits, robot dolls, and black boxes. The Hansons signed a deal with a leading toy company involving a 5% royalty for the manufacture of Billy dolls. Billy’s Mom explained that it would provide money to send him to MIT. Billy’s Dad bought a large boat.

A year passed. Black boxes with a forged autograph of Billy Hanson were available on eBay. The winning float in the Tournament of Roses parade showed a black box covered in Japanese seaweed, with a red button covered in roses. Billy’s Dad hired an agent, who got him a new higher paying job announcing robot competitions on TV.

Another year passed. The Hanson’s lawsuit still hadn’t come to trial. The black box was put on display in a newly built and highly secure wing of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Over a million people came to see it. The press speculated that it wasn’t the real box, but only a replica. In fact, a courier had secretly brought the original box to the White House, where it was in a safe in the Oval Office.

The President felt a deep sense of responsibility as he placed the box on his desk and stared at it. What to do? He wished he could wake up from a bad dream. His party was in disarray. The opposition party was growing increasingly critical. Journalists too. The Cabinet was torn with dissension, and the Secretary of Commerce’s advice was utterly useless.

What were his options? He could push the button and end the mystery. He visualized an official ceremony with the press and the whole world watching. But, what if it didn’t work? Or maybe he should just push it now. On the other hand, he could delay indefinitely and let the decision fall to his successor. Unless one of the secret service guards went crazy and pushed the button. Or a long list of other possible catastrophes. The buck stops here, he thought. What would Harry Truman have done, he wondered. What if the alien spaceship returns and takes my box away? Or what if it returns with another box for China? Or worse, for Libya?

Another year passed. Billy’s father became the advertising spokesman for Black Box Margarine. He would hold up the package, smile, and say “It’s out of this world.” He didn’t spend much time at home any more.

Billy often thought about the box. He regretted that he hadn’t pushed the button at the beginning, before the box had been taken from him. He tried many times to phone the White House to talk to the President. “Let me push the button,” was what he wanted to say. But polls showed that people wouldn’t respect a President who didn’t have the courage to act himself. So the President never came to the phone and never returned Billy’s calls.

Billy wondered what the President was going to do, what he was doing at this instant. A thousand miles away, the President took the box in his hands for perhaps the thousandth time. He pondered the crucial question: How will this affect my chances for reelection?

 

The alien spaceship is now eighteen trillion miles away. Inside, three aliens are watching the President on the display screen.  All the aliens are doubled over with laughter.

 

Author: Dave Grossman

2 thoughts on “The Gift

    1. I’d push the button immediately. The entire story was motivated by the resistance I experienced in trying to get IBM manufacturing managers to accept robots in the 1980s, when I managed the robotics research project. I kept running into the argument that when times are good, the company is making so much money that it doesn’t need robots, and when times are bad the company is losing so much money that it can’t afford robots. The eventual conclusion is that it’s never the right time.