Madelaine O'Donnell plonked herself resignedly into the black leather swivel chair across the desk from Gerard Dupres, the White House media liaison.
"So can you level with me, Gez?"
He leaned forwards, hands steepled before his chin. "You know, Maddy? For once I can. We're not in a position to keep this behind closed doors any longer. Speculation's rife."
"I know. I started most of it."
"And that," he sighed, "is why you're here. The people will believe you when you go to print on this. Whatever the end result is, we won't want any doubters. We're going to need to be seen as completely honest and open."
Madelaine laughed. "I don't do miracles, Gez. This administration has been a closed shop since it came to office, and since the whole Angel thing, well - need I say more? Anyway, what do you mean by 'the end result'?"
Dupres sat back in his chair, arms open - unmistakably conscious body language that hadn't washed with her in ten years.
"They haven't merely been studying us these past three months. The truth is the Angels have been assessing us. It's no secret that they've travelled the globe. They've asked thousands of questions, some obvious, some inexplicable. But it's not a fact finding mission they're on. The whole thing's a test."
"And if we pass?"
"Then, apparently, there's a very bright future just around the corner. And the President thinks that we can be at the forefront of it. He's very confident."
"I'm sure he is. I've never seen anyone wined and dined as much as The Prime and his entourage! And they don't even look as if they enjoy Earth food, of any variety."
"Look, they came to us first, recognised us as the only meaningful Superpower on the planet, and President Jacobs seized the opportunity. This is his baby, and he's done one hell of a job..."
"Whoa there," Madelaine interjected, "he might be top of the class for sucking up to alien life forms, but have you seen our economy, Gez? We're in bloody freefall!"
"We all see that, Maddy. But the President believes that this is key to solving all our difficulties. If we can pull this off without the Chinese or the Russians out-maneouvering us it will all become extremely good, extremely fast."
"What, because we'll become enlightened? Empowered? Is their technology on the table here?"
Dupres' brow furrowed. "They've certainly hinted at massive benefits all round. Everyone's seen the images of their mother ship. You can't deny they have a lot to offer."
"No, but have they actually offered it?"
"Maddy, listen, we'll find out tomorrow. The inspection comes to an end and we're to be given the results. Just us! And I want you there, Maddy. Don't you see what this will do for your career?"
"I'm not ungrateful, Gez. Of course I'll be there. But one question for now - has anyone hypothesised what the result of failure could be?"
"Come on, Maddy," Dupres chuckled, "I don't have to remind you of the campaign slogan, do I?"
She stared at him. "Is that it? Think positive?"
The panel consisted of the President, his Chief of Staff, the Forign Secretary and three angels - the Prime, who had taken the Earth name Thomas (his own being unpronounceable), and two aides.
The audience was made up almost entirely of government officials, supplemented by the small UN detachment and a handful of 'miscellaneous' individuals, leading scientists, religious figureheads, a NASA representative, and Madelaine O'Donnell - representing the press of the free world.
She focused upon the aliens seated upon the rostrum before her.