Alan MacDuil woke to a terrifying nightmare. At first he didn’t know if he still dreamed, because waking seemed only an extension of his terrifying vision. He lay wearing only a pair of boxer shorts in a ring of glass and steel, and all around him stood strange creatures, things he’d never imagined. He saw several tall, thin monsters with cylindrical bodies, each having six arms ending in claws and three shaggy beast-like beings with eight eyes and shark-like smiles of razor teeth. There were eight beings he recognized from science fiction, four of them small gray people with huge black eyes and four more that were twice as tall but otherwise identical to the smaller ones. Another of those surrounding him looked like a mix between a Komodo dragon and a kangaroo, and the last two appeared to be ghostly octopi, but with twenty or thirty tentacles and vicious, cruel eyes.

Somehow he didn’t scream. He drew himself to his feet, shuddered once or twice, and then bowed.

"Welcome to Earth," he said in a shaky voice, "or if we’re not on the Earth, then greetings from Earth."

"Silence, Earthling!" The voice came from a box on the wall. Such was the noise made by the strange beings that Alan couldn’t tell which of the creatures had spoken. "How do you plead?"

"Not guilty, of course," said Alan in surprise, "I haven’t done anything illegal that I know of." Not yet, he didn’t add.

"No!" The box seemed to shake with the emotion of the denial. "The human race! Guilty or innocent?"

"Of what?" Alan replied scornfully, then hid a wince. There it was: anger. It had led him wrong many a time, but in this case it worked to his advantage. As the box spoke again he took a few deep breaths and used his anger to force his thoughts into order.

"You are here, Earthling, to defend your race. They are guilty, but we will give you a chance to speak for them."

"Me? Why me? And guilty of what?"

"We chose you because you were easy to capture, thirty of your kilometers from the nearest other human. And yours is a sick and perverted race. What crime have they not committed?"

"If you judge the whole by the individual, then you’re still wrong," said Alan, "if you take any individual example you’ll get a different result. Some of us are guilty of terrible crimes, it’s true. Others give up their lives for their friends. Who is to say which is the best example of the whole?"

"False!" The box on the wall seemed to scream. "Only a few give up their lives, the rest are guilty."

"Balderdash," said Alan, in a calm, controlled voice, his anger turning cold. He still couldn’t be sure if this situation was real, but he felt that assuming the fetal position wouldn’t help, real or not. "Millions upon millions of humans sacrifice their lives, all their dreams and wishes, for their children, for brothers or sisters, and sometimes for total strangers. The fact that they don’t necessarily die doesn’t matter. Our lives last only a few decades. Time is our most precious commodity, and I daresay 99% of the people in the world routinely sacrifice their time, in other words their lives, on behalf of others every day. It’s not rare, it’s so common it’s practically invisible."

"He makes a good point," said a gentle voice from the box, and this time Alan could tell it came from one of the shaggy things that looked like ferocious predators.

"You humans love violence," said another voice, "you watch it as entertainment, you tell stories to children about violence, and you murder each other in great wars." Alan didn’t know from which it came, but he thought it might be one of the octopus things.

"Only partially true," said Alan, "stories about violence are used sometimes to entertain, and sometimes to teach. But it is at one remove; in our history violence was far more common and we’ve grown past it in many parts of the world. It’s still exciting and interesting in stories, but most people don’t experience it directly anymore, so it’s a sort of vicarious thrill. And even our wars are growing less destructive, more focussed on individual malefactors. There are no doubt some terribly evil humans, and some of them use lies and trickery to bring others into war whether they want it or not. But we’re getting better in that regard, not worse." He paused for a moment. "So what is the point of this? Why am I defending my race? None of you has any right to judge us."

"You are defending your people," said the soft voice of the shark-tooth thing, "because if you do not do it well, they will be destroyed."

"Well, then," said Alan, "there’s no need to defend them any more. Nothing any human has ever done is a crime so vile as that. Kill the innocent with the guilty? The helpless infant with the child-murderer? All of us? That is a crime beyond any human being. Not even the worst of us, a Hitler or a Stalin or a Mao, ever dreamed of doing such a thing. And we’ve had the means for over sixty years, and never did it. If you contemplate a crime so horrific as that, then you’re already too depraved to listen to reason. I hadn’t realized you were all as evil as you appear to human eyes. I thought perhaps you were enlightened compared to humans, but I see that you are not. I can’t stop you from stooping to such a barbaric act, and I doubt any appeal I can make would change the hearts of hardened villains that would destroy billions of people for the misdeeds of a few. Yet I will make the attempt.

"Do not commit so horrific a crime! Each of us has to learn how to live, how to be good or evil, and we are getting better, because knowledge accumulates and it’s easier now to know about the past than ever before. We’re improving because of the cumulative wisdom gathered throughout our history, and eventually some of the horrors that remain a part of our world will vanish. Meanwhile, if you bother to do any real studying on us, you’ll see how mothers and fathers work themselves to the bone to provide better lives for their children. You’ll see how five hundred people go out into the woods to find a missing child, sometimes breaking bones or even dying in the attempt. You’ll see how in the horror of war a soldier will pull up his rifle and not shoot because his enemy picks up a child or hides behind a woman, putting his own life at risk for a stranger. You’ll see how children take care of elderly parents, how siblings take care of a brother who can’t take care of himself. You’d see patient nurses caring for the dying in a hospice. If you had bothered to study our race, you would’ve seen the astonishing good that happens constantly, in every part of the world, the kindness and self-sacrifice and duty and genius.

"But you didn’t bother. You just scratched the surface, saw some of the bad things, and decided to commit a crime worse than all the crimes of all the human race combined. You have no right to judge us. You’re worse than any human has ever been."

"Veto." It was the gentle voice, and the three beast-things turned away.

"Wait!" The first voice sounded strained. "You can’t do that."

"He’s right," said the monstrous predator in its soft, kindly voice, "if we do this we are worse than any human being you fear so greatly. Veto. And what’s more, if you attempt to do it in spite of our veto, then you will learn that humans aren’t the only creatures in the universe that know how to make war. Our race hasn’t had a war for twenty-thousand standard cycles, but if we must, we will fight to defend the humans. Send this one back to his planet. They will need such a great mind among them."

Alan bowed to the shark-mouth things.

"I am glad to find that I was mistaken in my conclusions," he said, "some of you at least were willing to learn instead of leap into the worst sort of crime. God speed you." He turned towards the octopus-things, who he suspected were the drivers of this farce of a trial, but before he could say a thing the room vanished, and he stood once more by a smoldering campfire in the remotest part of the Mohave desert.

He shivered in the winter chill and ducked back inside his tent. Wrapping himself in his sleeping bag, he wondered if it had really happened. He felt awake enough, and he could still feel the cold metal floor of the glass cell. He dressed quickly and built up the fire. Once he had the bacon and coffee going, he strode out towards the edge of the cliff not thirty feet from his camp. He looked down at the shadowy desert below, and breathed a prayer of thanks. He had come out here to ‘accidentally’ die, so that his ex-wife would have the money to take care of their children. He had nowhere to go, no money, no job, but he’d managed to keep his life insurance paid up. He’d decided it was the only way to take care of his kids, but things had changed. He felt heartened, hopeful, as if the sudden stress of trying to defend the whole human race had broken the hopeless mental ruts he’d built up over the last few months.

It was probably all just a wild fantasy, a way for him to imagine he’d just saved the whole human race. Yet it didn’t matter. He watched the sun come up and appreciated its beauty far more than he had in years. The smell of the bacon brought a grumble to his belly, and he chuckled.

"As the gaffer says, where there’s life there’s hope, and need of vittles," he quipped. "I suppose I had better start living again."