You know that meme about how presidents and governors, after getting elected, look super shell-shocked and stressed the next time they make a public appearance? Like the first thing that happens after you come into power is that you’re pulled into a room and told all of the secrets of the world?
Well, turns out it’s true. As a matter of fact, it’s a VHS tape.
The “four hour tape” was always a bit of an urban legend at the office. I’ll be keeping the details of my role in government very very vague, but to be absolutely clear, I am very low-level. My role is caked between layers of bureaucracy, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s a pretty inconsequential role.
When you’re working at my level, you’re generally not privy to any high-level secrets. Yes, top-secret meetings did occasionally happen in our building, but my focus is pretty limited and heavily administrative. So, you do what any other department does when you’re in the bottom rung of the hierarchy: you discuss rumors, rumblings, crazy conspiracy theories, and everything in between. It’s watercooler conversation for us. “Man, I wonder what the folks at the top are doing right now” – that kind of stuff.
Out of all of the rumors that fluttered around the office, the “four hour tape” was always the one I found the most fascinating. The crux of it: once you reach the highest clearance level, you are sat down and shown this tape. None of us knew what the contents of the tape were, or if a tape like this even actually existed, but it was fun to speculate about it every now and then. Most of the time, we found with our little rumors and conspiracy theories, that the most mundane answer was usually the correct one. Life, in general, finds a way to surprise us with how boring everything can be.
Now, there’s something you should know about me before I continue. I’m a wimp. I’m meek, anxious, and generally restless. I’m a chronic rule-follower. There is no part of me that wants to dig up secret documents and uncover “the truth” about what happens at the highest levels of government in our country.
So when I discuss the events of four nights ago, please be mindful of that. I didn’t ask for this. And I’m only sharing because I don’t know how much time I have left anyway. And I can’t live with this stuck in my conscience, alone.
It was nighttime at the office. I’m known to be a bit of a chronic workaholic, and there was something I really wanted to get done before the week was over, so I was working later than usual. I went to print a document on what I thought was the printer in my immediate vicinity. The notification on my computer showed that my document was being printed, but I didn’t hear any noise or paper coming out from my local printer. I checked the name of the device I selected, and it looked like I’d accidentally clicked on a printer that was being used on another floor. I sighed. In any normal circumstances, I probably would’ve just forgotten about that mistake and reprinted the documents on my local printer again, but, our general management here is quite stringent on us making sure that all confidential documents are accounted for. We are not allowed to share department-specific documentation to other departments. Fuck it, I thought. I looked up a map in my inbox showing the locations of all of the company printers. Turns out, I’d accidentally clicked on the printer named “Prints Charming” on the seventh floor. Hah. Funny name. Off I went.
I really should’ve just let it be.
I got to the elevator and rode it up to the seventh floor. I emerged onto the mostly-empty office area. In case you were wondering, the building I work in is huge. But… I’d worked there long enough to know my way around it, so I knew the area surrounding the printer relatively well. I made my way through the hallways and eventually spotted the printer with my freshly printed papers minting it. I gave myself a mental pat on the back for continuing my lifelong streak of following the rules.
As I went to grab the papers, I noticed some light buzz in a meeting room nearby. I looked through the window to see roughly ten people hanging out around a snack table. In the room was a large old-looking TV on a cart, and rows of some of the fanciest folding chairs I’d ever seen, organized in a neat fashion.
I didn’t think much of it, and started walking off, until I heard the door open –
“Hey! Mr. Boskowitz, right? Jesus man we were supposed to start 15 minutes ago. Get in here.”
“I, uh, what? No sorry I think you have the wrong –”
“I don’t care why you’re late, just get in here, grab a plate of snacks and sit down, we’re starting soon. Put your phone in the bag, electronic watch in the bag, and anything else on your person that can be used to record audio or video,” he responded hastily.
Something about his sternness and tone short-circuited my brain. For guys like me, there is a third option beyond “fight” or “flight”. It’s called the “just go with it until it’s over”… also known as the “captured rabbit strategy”.
I put my phone and my watch in the bag. I meekly tried to butt in with another “Sir I’m not Mr. Boskowitz–” but he had already pulled me into the room at this point. He closed the door and walked to the front by the TV. I thought about making a break for it, but I decided to just see it through at this point, hoping deep down that whatever was happening was as inconsequential as my job was.
Everyone had their snack plates and were heading to their seats. I awkwardly grabbed a muffin from the snack table, put it on a napkin, and took a seat in the very back row. Everyone was spaced out from each other. It didn’t seem like any of these folks knew one another. I quietly sighed at the thought of having to sit through some sort of boring informational seminar or irrelevant training session.
After a few minutes of everyone settling in, the man who originally brought me into the room started talking. There was an equally serious guy standing next to him, and a secret-service lookin’ fella standing in the corner. Huh. I started wondering to myself why we were going to watch a video off of a very old-school looking TV… felt like we were all back in elementary school or something.
“Alright, I just need to do a final run-through before we get started,” the man at the front said. “I know you all read through the emails and signed your releases. I just wanted to recap some ground-rules. You’re allowed to get up and grab another snack, but beyond that, we want you to pay full attention to the tape once it starts playing. If any of you need to go to the bathroom, we strongly urge you to wait until the presentation is over. If you absolutely have to go, we will pause the tape and one of us will escort you. There is water in the corner by the snacks, cups are right there as well, and uh, goes without saying, but any discussion of this presentation to folks who do not have top compartmented clearance is a breach of your terms of employment, a breach of your non-disclosure agreement, a breach of your multiple signed releases, a breach of the US criminal code in the state of [redacted], and a breach of the conditions laid out by the Committee for the Protection and Preservation of Human Consciousness.”
They started dimming the lights. Fuck. It felt like I had missed any window of opportunity I had to leave. Too late. That committee name he highlighted sounded way above my clearance level.
One of the men at the front of the room pulled out a VHS tape from a bag, and very slowly and securely put it into a VHS player. He pressed play.
I took a deep breath. Those watercooler conversations I’d had with my coworkers were starting to float to the top of my mind, but I quelled them. There was probably no need for panic. It was just a stupid government meeting, right?
The tape started. The beginning was familiar enough. Various disclaimers about this being incredibly confidential material, yada yada yada. Insignias of relevant organizations – Presidential Libraries, etc. I’d seen lots of videos like this already.
But wait. That insignia looked strange. Like something was off. I scanned it. Presidential Libraries. That same eagle. Those same stars. Weird. This time, there was a navy blue hand on the left shoulder of the eagle. Did they update the logo?
Before I had time to ruminate on it too much, the tape cut to a logo I had actually never seen before.
“Committee for the Protection and Preservation of Human Consciousness.” The logo was just an image of planet Earth. Fair enough.
The video cut to a room that looked similar to the congress floor, but with some strange differences: seats were much more spaced out, the podium looked like it had seen better days, and the whole room looked to be on a pretty steep incline. Everything was in black and white. It looked like there were about fifty people in attendance. It was hard to make out the faces.
Everything looked very dated, like the video was from the 40s or the 50s.
The tape lingered on this one shot for quite a while. Minutes passed. I noticed what looked to be a choir, all in outfit and perfectly huddled next to each other, standing in one of the corners of the room.
It really felt like I shouldn’t have been seeing this. None of this was meant for my eyes.
After a few more minutes, the tape abruptly cut to an awkward-angle video of a man speaking at the podium in the room. It was too zoomed-in, enough that you couldn’t see his eyes or his hair. It didn’t look all that professional. I couldn’t tell who he was.
“Members of the Committee for the Protection and Preservation of Human Consciousness, I thank you all for coming tonight. We are lucky to be in the good graces of our visitors today. Without rehashing our painful history…”
The tape cut to a camera slowly panning over all of the faces of the folks seated in the room. The attendees looked pained. Somber. The man continued his speech as the camera continued panning over the committee.
“…we can acknowledge that the journey to this moment has been an arduous one. I am pleased to say that humanity, faced with a dire ultimatum, has come to a majority decision. To our esteemed guests from across the solar system, we are thankful for the opportunity you have given us to negotiate with you.”
I felt adrenaline. Fuck, we had made contact with extraterrestrial life. This was the truth. Maybe, like the saying went, the truth would set me free.
“Before I outline the decision taken by humanity, I want to, from the bottom of my heart, thank the brilliant representatives from all of the nations of the world… who came together to ensure that this decision was taken with utmost responsibility, care, and appreciation for our human species. I am aware that this was not a unanimous decision.”
Shit, what did that mean? I felt the sweat on my brow. I felt nausea coming in. I awkwardly and slowly took a bite of the muffin.
The tape returned to a now-corrected angle of the speaker at the podium. His eyes were visible. They looked strained. Like they’d seen multiple versions of hell.
“To the nations who still disagree,” he continued, “I thank you nonetheless for accepting the majority decision. May this moment, which will be held in secrecy throughout the rest of time, be appreciated as a critical milestone for human civilization. Tonight is not a victory. It is a somber moment. However, we were faced with two options. Extinction. Or accepting the agreement. We made our choice, and I believe time will show that this was the right decision.”
What… was this?
“I hereby announce that we accept the agreement provided by our special guests who have chosen to go by the name [redacted]. The… intergalactic species known as [redacted] will allow humanity on planet earth to continue to populate, grow, and innovate. In return, all governments of the world will honor the promise.”
He needed to spit it out. What the fuck was this agreement?
“We… will not be covering every element of the agreement in this session. I will, however, highlight the main points…”
At this point, the video showed the man at the podium looking down. He was reading off of something. For the first time, he looked nervous. Scared. I saw some humanity in him.
“We honor the agreement that [redacted] hold the right to visit planet Earth on a recurring basis. They will be allowed to consume, for the basis of nourishment, a majority of the human population on planet Earth. After every visit, the remaining humans on Earth will be expected to breed and grow to capacity in time for the next visit. We acknowledge that we will maintain a parallel history which will be shared with our world’s population, to ensure that humanity stays motivated to continue existing as a species. This parallel history may suggest that mass extinction events are the results of man-made folly, as opposed to the work of external forces.”
For the first time, my fight or flight response was actually “flight”. I wanted to escape, but I didn’t know what I’d even be running from.
“The last visit by [redacted] was approximately in the year 1346 and it lasted seven years. We will continue to honor our parallel history about this event.”
I just wanted it to end.
“The next visit, which will not be met with resistance, will be in the year 2028 and will run for one full calendar year on Earth, marking a 675 year gap between the last significant visit by the species known as [redacted]. This visiting cadence is expected to speed up over time, as the remaining humans continue to sharpen their focus on building technology to allow humanity to reproduce in a speedy and productive manner.”
Jesus Christ. Our planet is a fucking farm.
I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t.
The tape cut away to a larger view of the congress-like room: the somber committee members in attendance, and the members of the choir in the corner, who I could only imagine looked horrified.
Where were the “visitors”? Why couldn’t I see them?
The camera then panned to a number of larger, empty seats – the same slow style of video panning as the one that happened earlier with the committee members. No visible entities in the seats, but the seats themselves looked blurry.
The man at the podium carried on with his speech, as the camera pan on those blurry seats continued.
“We should acknowledge the privilege of knowing that there is indeed life in the cosmos. That extraterrestrial life has chosen to visit our planet. And that the cycle and balance provided by nature extends beyond the confines of planet Earth. Much like humanity has found its place on Earth in the food chain, we acknowledge our place in the divine order of things when encountered with beings of greater power, understanding, cognitive function, and evolutionary progression.”
Fucking hell, I shouldn’t have stayed late at work. I should’ve made my identity clear from the very beginning. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to see this.
Fuck, it really looked like the speaker was about to cry.
“While the process of consumption i-is a painful and lengthy one, we respect the trade-off that comes with the preservation of our species. We also acknowledge, as part of the promise, that substitutes for human life in the form of clones, should we discover that technology in the future, or other living species… will never function as viable alternatives for nourishment,” the speaker continued.
I didn’t need to know this. This whole thing was way too specific for me.
“Our final major acknowledgement, as part of this agreement, is that we accept [redacted] as the great almighty… as the entities we will now refer to as God. God, as an interstellar species, has revealed itself to us, and thus, the continued existence of [redacted] is now the true priority of the people of our planet. We are blessed to play a part in the continuation of God. In God we trust. Amen.”
The tape then cut to footage of the choir, as the speaker continued.
“We bless our visitors with this gift: a performance of the national anthems of all major nations of the world will now commence.”
Audio of a very loud backing track of the Star-Spangled banner started playing from the video as my stomach sank. The tape showed footage of the choir singing on top of the track. Not sure if it was because they were scared for their lives, but I could really tell they were singing their hearts out.
As they sang, the camera continued to pan over the blurry seats.
They finished singing the anthem, and suddenly…
Fucking hell. I had forgotten I was sitting in a room.
I had disengaged from the video for a brief moment. I had mentally returned to the present day. This was our world. This was our fucking lives.
The men at the front continued fast-forwarding through the tape. It looked like they were skipping through performances of the other national anthems. The fast-forwarding went on for a while. Every small while, it looked like a new choir group was entering the congress-like room to sing a different national anthem. On and on the tape went. I had to fight the urge to pass out.
One of the men at the front of our room, standing next to the TV, started speaking up.
“We are legally obligated to get to the end of this tape, but you don’t need to look at the rest of it. Please feel free to look down, or close your eyes, or grab a snack,” he said.
I noticed the others seated in the room were taking that advice. Most of them decided to look straight down.
For some weird reason, I couldn’t look away.
The fast-forwarding progressed. On the tape, it was yet another choir group joining to perform an anthem. And then another. And then another. It looked like we were near the end.
The fast-forwarding now showed a conversation between the man at the podium, and another man who was whispering in his ear. The man at the podium was vehemently shaking his head. The other man continued whispering. This continued on. Eventually, there was a quick moment of the man at the podium begrudgingly nodding.
The last few fast-forwarded moments of the tape remain burned in my memory to this very moment. They were pandemonium. The attendees were sitting in their chairs, frozen, shivering, crying. The people in the various choirs were running around the rooms in fast-motion, as blurry spots started covering them and ungodly things started happening to them. Fuck. Why didn’t I look away. If ever there was a fucking time to follow orders. It felt like the whole thing went on for longer than it should’ve.
Finally, the men at the front of our room stopped the fast-forwarding. They pressed play on the tape to cover the very final moment.
In the tape, the man at the podium, clearly emotional, spoke his final line.
“The agreement has been ratified by [redacted]. Thank you all for attending.”
The final shot of the video is the full room. The committee members in their seats, shivering and crying. The dismantled and bloodied choir members strewn about the room. The blurry seats with blood smeared on them.
The video then cut away, back to that same insignia on a black backdrop. The Presidential Libraries. That eagle. Those stars. The navy blue hand on the wing of the eagle.
The lights in our room turned on.
The rest of the night was a blur. The men at the front of the room told us it was best for us to sit for an hour to digest the information. No discussion about the video was allowed to take place. When we were ready to stand, we were allowed to leave and go home. They gave us some pointers on how to “accept” the information over the coming weeks. Things like taking long walks, exercising, watching a sitcom, etc…
I wasn’t worried about them realizing that I wasn’t supposed to be there. If anything, I felt a strange camaraderie with everyone in the room. We were all, truly, in the same boat.
As soon as I left the building and got in my car, I just drove. For as long as I could. I would stop for gas, then I’d keep driving. I’d stop again. Then I’d keep driving. Again. And again.
I’m holed up in a hotel now. I’m just glad I could get this off my chest.
The funny thing is, all I can think about is the length of that stupid tape. While I can’t confirm, I feel like if it were played straight through without fast-forwarding, it would’ve only been three hours. I wonder if the “four hour tape” rumor came from the fact that we all needed that extra hour to digest the information.
And now, you’re probably wondering… why don’t I name the species that is going to spell humanity’s doom throughout the rest of time? Why am I calling them [redacted]?
Well. As the self-appointed leader of the “Committee for the Acknowledgment that we Should’ve Just Chosen Extinction”, I don’t feel the need to honor our captors by calling them by their name.
If I don’t see you again, I appreciate the watercooler conversation.
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